Gambling and Strategy

I’ve been thinking a lot about strategy games lately, partially for work and partially for private stuff. And while thinking (and talking and listening) I’ve come to a conclusion that a big part of strategic or tactical decisions is a sort of “calculated gamble”. I just quickly wanted to put this out there and see if I can get a discussion and some other viewpoints.

What I mean when I say gamble is that you start out with some sort of finite resource, be it military units, goods, space or money. Then you’re presented with an option: You can risk some of your resources and attempt something that would gain you even more resources. Say you could attack your neighbor to raid his cities, risking your units to increase your resources. This risk is essential. If there’s no risk involved, no chance of losing something, then the decision becomes a no-brainer. Clearly you will take the riskless option to improve your situation, I mean who wouldn’t?

So about that risk… where does it come from? Well it’s simply there because the outcome of your decision is not known beforehand. Propably because you most do not possess perfect information about the situation. Maybe you don’t know how strong your target’s defenses are or if he’s got friends protecting him. Even if you do know all there is you might still not surely know the outcome since there’s a random element involved. So to get more information and to be better at gauging the risk you could try to spy out their units – or you could simply build the biggest army possible, going in blind in the hopes that you’ll just steamroll over your opponent.

So in essence strategy is: you are presented with a certain risk/reward option. You’ll first try to understand the risk, then if neccessary try to minimize it before striking. However in the end there should still be a certain sliver of insecurity before you make the gamble.

5 thoughts on “Gambling and Strategy

  1. “However in the end there should still be a certain sliver of insecurity before you make the gamble.”

    Usually, but not always. A very few strategy games still present you with absolutely all the information you need to take your decision. Their appeal lies in complexity rather than uncertainty. That is, the high amount of possible combinations that a certain action will create. I’m talking about (You probably guessed it already…), best known example, chess.

  2. Well alright, you do have a good point there:

    There might be cases where you have perfect information about a risk/reward situation. At least when seen from a tactical perspective. In these cases there’s often a strategic layer that puts the tactical option in a greater context. Then it’s less about the individual choice and more about the clever allocation of resources. This extends to your chess metaphor:

    As for chess, there’s no imperfect information about the individual moves: You know beforehand which move is possible and what it’s direct results will be. However there’s imperfect information as to the plans of your opponent. Maybe his move is a feint and he’s setting you up. Here you gamble that your move is the right one to counter your opponent’s strategy but you can’t ever know for sure. That’s the central risk/reward part here.

  3. So when we talk about weighing risks and rewards, getting a lot of information etc, I suppose we aren’t talking about any real-time strategy games, right?
    Gathering information usually takes quite some time, so this would be something you would rather do in some turn-based game. In RTS games you will usually have to make quick decisions, use more tactics than following some grand strategical scheme or some opponent might just be faster and outmaneuver you.
    In RTS this is exactly the thing that thrills you… so that might be more of a motivation than weighing rewards and risks.
    But if you play something turn-based I think the interesting thing would be the planning involved in making your next move (and beyond that)… so yes.. weighing pros ans cons of your next actions.

  4. Another good point. And yes, I was thinking about browser games primarly.

    That said, yeah in a real time game you’ve got less time to “gather information” but you still need to calculate risk/reward. You need to decide if you’ll be attacking him now or later, whether to invest in your production or your army. There’s less information about the opponent involved though.

  5. Ah okay… gathering information in RTS in this form is some kind of meta-game… browse forums for buildup-information, read the (f’in) manual to get information about your unit stats and make up some plan how to build up your units with maximum efficiency in minimum time.

    But okay, thinking about browser games, you’re probably right. The important factor in this is that the outcome never is deterministic, even if the game mechanisms themselves are. Each player for himself is additional game content to the others as they usually can’t predict how the other player is going to react on other actions. If a player is a lone wolf he may be oblivious to your attacks. If he’s in a strong ally, he may call his friends for retaliation. He may start insulting you, start guerilla warfare or try to befriend you hoping for a strong protector. This is something that would be quite hard to perform by some AI…

    So to get back to your “calculated gamble” theory… in Browser games maybe there is some information you can gather, regarding the opponents resources and possibilities but it might be hard to forsee his personal reaction to your moves. So this often ends in “just try it and let’s see what happens”… at least for me 😉

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