Everything you need to know about the history of strategy games (2024)

Summary

  1. 1The early roots
  2. 2The first console strategy game
  3. 3Subgenres of strategy games
  4. 4The future of strategy games

Strategy games are the oldest form of game there is. Whenever two minds meet in competition, strategies are being contemplated. From chess to Risk and Age of Empires, games where you have to think more than react are some of the oldest in existence. This genre of game is even older than sport itself, yet we never see strategy games top the sales charts. Don’t let that make you think they aren’t popular, though, strategy game fans are some of the most dedicated out there.

But what are strategy games? Basically, they are games that emphasise long-term planning over twitch reactions. Analysing situations, skillful thinking and predicting the impact of multiple different decisions are all needed to succeed in strategy games. In short, they're games that can really tax your brain cells. They have the same appeal as puzzle games – engaging your brain in the task of finding a solution to a problem – but where a puzzle can be abstract and one-dimensional, a strategy game can be wrapped around a theme and represent a multi-layered, multi-dimensional puzzle.

For example, StarCraft is a real-time strategy game set at the beginning of the 26th century and centers on a galactic struggle for dominance among four species in a distant part of the Milky Way galaxy known as the Koprulu Sector. That's the theme of the game and playing it revolves around building up a base and army of sufficient strength to eliminate all opponents. Each of the four races in the game has their own strengths and weaknesses, so a player needs to understand these and lean their course of action into them, while also considering how they suspect their opponents may be doing the same. It's like playing chess against three other players, but each player's pieces have different abilities than your own — and everyone moves in real time rather than taking turns.

As you can see, strategy games represent a type of game that's often grand in scope, focusing on the choices a general might have to contemplate rather than the immediate action a foot soldier might face when staring down the sights of a rifle. They require a different frame of mind. We all have the games we like to play that allow us to veg out and switch off, but strategy games require us to engage and switch on. It's an entirely different kind of thrill than getting a KO or headshot. To strategically out-manover and out-think an opponent – whether human or AI – over a prolonged period of time can make you feel like the reincarnation of Alexander The Great.

01

The early roots

The moment the first hom*osapien decided to stop and have a sit-down to think about what they were going to do next, strategy was born. The simple process of planning ahead led us to become the dominant species on the planet. This act became so engrossing to modern humans that we started to invent ways to apply it outside of our immediate day-to-day considerations. Board games like chess, senet and Go are humans distilling the desire to exercise their strategy-focused brains on activities that don’t require the hurting of one another.

Most historians agree that the first board game was senet. The game originated in ancient Egypt as early as 3,500 BCE. Senet is actually an educational game, designed to be a representation of the journey of the ka (the Egyptian interpretation of a soul) to the afterlife. This theory is backed by religious markings on senet boards and a reference in the famous Book of the Dead. The rules of senet do rely on dice rolls, so chance, rather than strategy plays a big part in the gameplay. However, a player needs to know how to apply the rolls of their dice to get the best high score.

The first true strategy game is considered to be Go. According to legend, Go originated in ancient China around 2,356-2,255 BCE, when the Emperor Yao wanted to create a game to help enlighten his son. Go looks a bit like checkers or drafts, but is deceptively complicated. Each game starts with an empty board and players use an unlimited supply of white or black stones to form 'territories' by surrounding vacant areas of the board. It's also possible to capture opponent's stones by completely surrounding them. With Go, we can see how the tenets of warfare are being applied to a game. It's unsurprising – humans are a combative species. We love competition and war is the ultimate, and possibly final, competition our species will ever engage in.

It was inevitable that ancient games would inspire computer programmers to try and write algorithms that could simulate them. The first example of this happening is when Paul Stein and Mark Wells wrote a computer program that could play a simplified version of chess on the MANIAC 1 (aka the Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer Model I) in 1956. This computer was an absolute beast and weighed about 450kg. This is also two years before the famous Tennis for Two was created, which is often cited as the first-ever video game.

As computers got smarter, people were able to explore their power more and the first proper strategy game – one not based on chess or checkers – appears to be Invasion. Released in 1972, Invasion was made for the Magnavox Odyssey – a strange-looking device that looked like it belonged in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Invasion is basically Risk, but with Pong-like battles that were fought on top of overlays that had to be stuck on the front of your television. The Odyssey was only capable of displaying a few squares on screen at any one time, but they could be moved by twiddling the knobs attached to the little boxes that served as controllers. Aside from the battles, Invasion was mostly played on a physical board, so the actual strategy game didn't take place on the console at all, but let's count it anyway.

Things picked up pace from there. As games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong launched gaming into the mainstream in 1980 and '81 respectively, strategy games continued to evolve. One notable release was 1989's Herzog Zwei which is considered to be the first real-time strategy game. German for 'Duke Two', the player directly pilots a flying, transforming mech. Through the mech, the player purchases surface combat units, airlifts them across the battlefield and issues them orders. Vehicles followed their assigned orders (patrol, garrison, capture base) until they either ran out of fuel or were destroyed. Due to the required involvement of the mech, the game involves a lot of micro-management of units, but the direct, real-time involvement of the player, rather than having to wait for your opponents to take their turn, inspired a new take on the strategy game.

This led to the release of Dune 2 in 1992 by Westwood Studios, which is often described as the game that set the formula for all other real-time strategy games going forward. Key elements that first appeared in Dune 2 would later appear in many other RTS games.

●A world map for choosing the next mission in the single-player campaign

●Resource gathering to fund unit construction

●Simple base and unit construction

●Building construction dependencies – aka technology trees

●Mobile units that can be deployed as buildings

●Different sides/factions, each with unique unit types and super weapons

●A context-sensitive mouse cursor to issue commands

Do they sound familiar? Games like Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, Warcraft and many other RTS games would not exist without Dune II and Herzog Zwei setting the template for what made strategising in real-time fun.

03

Subgenres of strategy games

From these humble beginnings, the strategy genre has blossomed in many different directions. It's fascinating to see how humankind's ingenuity and craving for a strategic challenge has spawned games that one wouldn’t immediately think of as a game and just how far a concept can be explored. Here are some notable types and games within them:

Real Time Strategy (RTS)

In order to inject some immediacy and action into strategising, games like Herzog Zwei and Dune II blazed a trail. This led to the incredibly popular Command and Conquer, Starcraft, Warcraft and Age of Empire series'. Not only did the Command and Conquer series give us the feel of what it would be like to be some sort of omnipresent general, floating over a battlefield with a birds-eye view, it also spawned one of the greatest memes of all time in the form of acclaimed actor Tim Curry loudly proclaiming that he will have to retreat to the one place not corrupted by capitalism.

Another big series in the RTS genre is Age of Empires. Where Command and Conquer went futuristic, Age of Empires looked to the past and incorporated civilisation development mechanics on top of directly managing units. In Age of Empires, you develop a civilisation across different technology ages: the Dark Age, the Feudal Age, the Castle Age (representing the High Middle Ages) and the Imperial Age (reminiscent of the Renaissance). The extra layer of strategy Age of Empires presents through the balancing of how long to stay in each age to gather resources verses jumping ahead technologically, presents an intoxicating gameplay challenge. It's so popular that Age of Empires has a growing esports scene. You should definitely check out some high-level Age of Empires play at Red Bull Wololo.

4X

While the immediacy of thinking and reacting in real-time has its appeal, sometimes it's nice to slow things down and think big. The 4X genre has this covered. 4X stands for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate, which should give you an idea of the breadth of these games. Notable titles in this genre are the Civilization series and Stellaris.

The Civilization games, as the name implies, let you build and develop a whole civilisation from scratch. Taking an individual settler establishing a village, to building vast metropolises that trade and war with other surrounding civilisations. All this happens in a turn-based structure, so you can be thoughtful and considered with your decision-making. If that sounds intriguing, check out our top tips for playing Civ 6.

A lot of games in the 4X genre venture out into space and let you explore galaxies as you attempt to build giant interstellar empires, like Stellaris. Fans of this strategy subgenre love it for how grand in scope they can be and how they can let players tinker around with hundreds of variables for an almost limitless number of possible outcomes.

Simulation/ City Builder

For the uninitiated, City Builder games can seem incredibly daunting and more like something someone would do for work than for fun. However, games like Cities: Skylines are actually giant creative sandboxes that let your imagination run wild, while also grounding you in a reasonable reality. At some point, while stuck in traffic because of inner city roadworks, we may have all wondered how something as vast and complicated as a city actually works. Well, city builder games offer a simulation that lets you try your hand at doing it.

The strategy here comes in the form of planning. How would you lay out a city so that traffic doesn't become an issue? Where would you put the industrial district so that it doesn’t pollute the parks you so lovingly crafted? How do you make sure the citizens of your fine city stay happy, with access to reliable power and clean water? All these things can be thought about and put into action in this genre. If you’re interested in this subgenre, City: Skylines is a good place to start.

Tower defence

Tower defence games are seen as leaning more towards the casual end of the strategy game spectrum. It might be because of how popular they are on mobile. Tower defense games involve, like the name suggests, building a suitable set of defenses to ensure an attacking wave of enemies can't make it to your base. It can be quite thrilling to see a line of baddies coming and you placing all manner of walls to funnel them, turrets to shoot at them or units to send up the line to impede them. All while considering how many resources you have left to pay for all these defences.

Multiplayer versions of this concept are also very popular, with the biggest being Clash Royale. A bite-sized piece of strategy thinking as you contemplate sending units forward, while defending against your opponents' at the same time – all played on your phone while waiting in line at the bank.

Card Battler/ Deck Builder

In the same vein as tower defence games, Card Battler games like Hearthstone, Marvel Snap and the upcoming Pokémon Trading Card Game Pocket, are massive on mobile. They involve two distinct layers of strategic thinking. The first is the obvious aspect of playing the game – when and which cards to use against your opponents. But the more nuanced and subtle strategic art of these games lies in making sure your deck has the right cards – and that they synergise well with each other. Hearthstone is a particularly successful game in this subgenre and if you’re interested, we have a handy deckbuilding guide.

04

The future of strategy games

Where the strategy game genre goes from here is anyone's guess, but as we've seen it evolve and innovate, it's clear that in the future we can expect some very interesting things.

Titles like Homeworld 3, Manor Lords and Ara: History Untold are pushing the envelope in terms of graphical fidelity and their depth of systems. Manor Lords in particular is interesting, because it's an amalgamation of city builder and real-time strategy game. Then, there are games like Frostpunk 2, which are taking a fantasy theme and wrapping a city management and survival simulation around it – requiring you to change your mindset from building an ideal city to just trying to not let your city crumble and fail.

It's possible we’ll see even more genre mash-ups in the strategy genre. Like a real-time strategy roguelike, or a 4X game that borrows elements of tower defence. We may even see games with super out-there themes, like a 4X game set in the universe of microorganisms.

Finally, the growing popularity of esports may see a range of strategy games developed with competition in mind. We didn't mention MOBAs, because they're a subgenre of strategy game that needs more than a few hundred words to do them justice, but we could see more games like Age of Empires come out and inspire a new esports scene.

Everything you need to know about the history of strategy games (2024)

FAQs

What is the history of strategy video games? ›

The origin of strategy video games is rooted in traditional tabletop strategy games like Chess, Checkers and Go, as well as board and miniature wargaming. The Sumerian Game, an early mainframe game written by Mabel Addis, based on the ancient Sumerian city-state of Lagash, was an economic simulation strategy game.

What was the first strategy game? ›

Herzog Zwei is credited by 1UP as a landmark that defined the genre and as "the progenitor of all modern real-time strategy games." Chuck Sperry cited Herzog Zwei as an influence on Dune II. Notable as well are early games like Mega-Lo-Mania by Sensible Software (1991) and Supremacy (also called Overlord – 1990).

What are the elements of strategy games? ›

In general, a strategy game has all of the following elements in varying degree:
  • Players succeed (or lose) based on strategic decisions, not luck.
  • Players have equal knowledge to play; no trivia.
  • Play is based on multiple decisions a person could make on each turn with possible advantages and disadvantages each time.

Was chess the first strategy game? ›

Senet:The Earliest Known Strategy Game

Senet originated in ancient Egypt as early as 3,500 BCE. Senet gained religious significance and is referenced in the Book of the Dead.

What makes a strategy game successful? ›

The heart of strategy games is that it gives players' agency over the different kinds and types decisions that they will make over the course of the game and the kinds of affects the desired outcome will have. This kind of agency prioritizes players' decision making and skill over that of randomness or luck.

What is the difference between strategy games and tactics games? ›

In tactical games, the emphasis is on controlling individual units or smaller squads. The aim is to overcome short-term challenges with tactics based on solving puzzles and other tactical challenges. In strategy games, the players must focus on long-term planning and global strategy.

What was the first 4X strategy game? ›

Some early strategy video games, such as Andromeda Conquest (1982) and Cosmic Balance II (1983) incorporated what would later become elements of 4X games, but the first 4X video game was Reach for the Stars (1983).

What was the first game ever mad? ›

Higinbotham made some drawings, and blueprints were drawn up. Technician Robert Dvorak spent about two weeks building the device. After a little debugging, the first video game was ready for its debut. They called the game Tennis for Two.

What is the first game ever? ›

Early history (1948–1970)

Spacewar! is credited as the first widely available and influential computer game. As early as 1950, computer scientists were using electronic machines to construct relatively simple game systems, such as Bertie the Brain in 1950 to play tic tac toe, or Nimrod in 1951 for playing Nim.

What are the 5 elements of strategy? ›

These five elements of strategy include Arenas, Differentiators, Vehicles, Staging, and Economic Logic. This model was developed by strategy researchers Donald Hambrick and James Fredrickson. To achieve key objectives, every business must assemble a series of strategies.

What do strategy games require? ›

Analysing situations, skillful thinking and predicting the impact of multiple different decisions are all needed to succeed in strategy games. In short, they're games that can really tax your brain cells.

What defines a strategy game? ›

A strategy game or strategic game is a game (e.g. a board game) in which the players' uncoerced, and often autonomous, decision-making skills have a high significance in determining the outcome. Almost all strategy games require internal decision tree-style thinking, and typically very high situational awareness.

What was chess originally called? ›

Chaturanga was flourishing in northwestern India by the 7th century and is regarded as the earliest precursor of modern chess because it had two key features found in all later chess variants—different pieces had different powers (unlike checkers and go), and victory was based on one piece, the king of modern chess.

Why does white Go first in chess? ›

Perrin, the Secretary of the New York Chess Club, informed those assembled at the First American Chess Congress that he had received a letter from Johann Löwenthal, a leading English master, "suggesting the advisableness of always giving the first move in public games, to the player of the white pieces".

What is the purpose of strategy games? ›

Strategy games are designed to simulate complex and dynamic scenarios that require players to make strategic choices and adapt to changing situations. Playing such games can help you develop and practice your problem-solving and decision-making skills, stimulating your brain and improving your mental flexibility.

What is the appeal of strategy games? ›

They have the same appeal as puzzle games – engaging your brain in the task of finding a solution to a problem – but where a puzzle can be abstract and one-dimensional, a strategy game can be wrapped around a theme and represent a multi-layered, multi-dimensional puzzle.

How do video games help with strategy? ›

Playing a high-speed strategic video game gets your brain to react quickly and strengthens your strategic thinking skills. Real-time strategy video games force an enhanced decision-making process, promoting the ability to think, strategize, and act on-the-go by learning from previous mistakes.

What was a strategy board game invented in 1957? ›

The French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse designed a board game with simple rules but complex interactions, La Conquête du Monde (The Conquest of the World) in 1957. Purchasing the rights, Parker Brothers published it with a few small changes as Risk in 1959.

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