A poll appeared on The Boardgame Group asking a very simple question: Are you a tactician or a strategist? What ensued first was the classic debate of the meaning behind these two terms. Generally, they are used pretty interchangeably, but it wouldn’t be English if it was easy. When you dig deeper into the uses of these words, business, military, and political definitions suggest that while these terms apply to the process of planning (read thinking) there are key differences, which we will be breaking down together.
First, I want to introduce myself, my name is Chris Michelotti. I am the owner of Foolish Panda Games and the designer of Escape The Fest!, a card game about being at a music festival. I am still in the process of getting things ready for my first Kickstarter, and oddly enough this discussion is something that has been in the back of my mind for a while. Knowing the type of leader and thinker you are is key as you decide to take the journey of bringing anything to life. Realizing that I lean more toward strategic thinking informs my choices on the kinds of people I surround myself with.
Second, I want to talk about what I am hoping to accomplish with this blog post. This initial post will define terms and apply these concepts to build your board game night and help you figure out how to be a better player. I may break these concepts down in future posts to show how they apply to game development, marketing, daily life, and our interactions with others, for now, I want to focus on your game nights.
Third, I want to finally add in the third option that should have been in that poll: Operational thinking. Operational thinking is an art form that I struggle with developing. There was a joke when I was in college that said, “There are three core things to having a healthy experience at college: A Social Life, Good Grades, and Sleep. Now choose two.” As I have grown, I use that same joke and apply it to life as a whole. So, to be dramatic about when figuring out the kind of thinker you are, let’s say you have the three options: Strategic, Tactical, and Operational. Now choose two.
We all practice all the forms of thinking, but my experience has shown that everyone has a main process, a secondary process, and a struggle point. For example, I consider myself a “S/t” (Main: Strategic / Secondary: Tactical) thinker. My struggle point is in Operational thinking. I am full of ideas that I can create processes to watch them come to fruition. I can follow orders about the best practices for repairing, maintaining, and cleaning – but my mind doesn’t expand on those processes to develop new ways of achieving those operational goals, rather I aim to find ways to get those things off my plate.
I will now offer some basic ideas regarding the various thinking processes and then I will get to the real reason why you are here, taking this new knowledge and applying it to your game nights!
STRATEGIC THINKING:: Think long-term, big picture ideas. These thinkers know to ask good “WHY” and “WHEN” questions. These thinkers are also okay with the concept of being an enigma in their life. They need to take in as much information prior to the choices they make, so they can move forward.
TACTICAL THINKING:: These thinkers can take orders and give them out and aim to be quick on their feet. These thinkers know to ask good “WHERE” and “HOW” because they seek clarity above all other things. Once they have the vision given to them and expectations laid out, they move fast to designing systems to make sure the vision can be seen.
OPERATIONAL THINKING:: Most people will (read should) master operational thinking. This thinking is the foundation of a solid system. These thinkers know to ask good “WHAT” questions. They are not mindless drones, however, because they too aim to see the visions become reality, and so their mind is constantly assessing actions for the sake of efficiency.
YOUR GAMING GROUP
So with that information in hand, it is now time to analyze your game night! Look at the people that make your group and figure out what kind of thinkers everyone is? You may find that certain thinkers are drawn to various games. Strategic Thinkers bringing out a long game isn’t an issue, but pay attention to their struggle points. If they struggle in the operational side of thinking, a lot of routines may drain on them. Why not consider an RPG? Developing a character and considering the big picture of that character and then living out that character’s truth every session requires a love of both strategy and tactics… toss away the operations!
For Tactical Thinkers, I think the obvious games would fall into resource management or managing something for that matter. If you have a Tactical Thinker whose struggle point is Strategy though, you want to avoid the really long games, and find ones that reward the ability to change plans based on the actions of others and allow for rewards to be found in optimizing operations.
If you have Operational Thinkers, then most games will work as long as you have a management aspect in them. Remember these thinkers pride themselves on efficiency, but make sure to look at what their struggle point is. If they struggle with the strategic thinking maybe look at grabbing a management game that doesn’t grind. If they struggle with Tactical Thinking then possibly look at a game that rewards not only proper efficiency but the ability to focus on the main engine developed by them.
If you are building up a game group then remember that as you choose the games that people will play. If you have a democratic system, then open up the dialogue so everyone feels heard when they chat about how they prefer to play games. If the majority of players are Strategic Thinkers make sure that while the majority of games will reflect that don’t forget the other members! If you meet up 5 times a month then you may want to have long game sessions for 3 of them, but why not have two sessions where you bring out the games that allow multiple plays in an 8 hour day? Maybe set up a day where your game group just brings games that honor the Tactical Thinkers or Operational Thinkers? Have your players explain why they feel that EVERYONE would enjoy the game because remember you need all kinds of people in your group that will help each other grow
YOUR GAMING ABILITY
I won’t tell you that I am the best gamer you will ever meet, but I have learned how to adapt to the games I play. When I play games that benefit Strategy and Tactics I am a different gamer that an Operations heavy that rewards Tactical ability. The first I will be louder and confident, and the second brings out a more introspective thinker that has to stay quiet as my mind is working harder. If you love playing games, then I encourage you to play games that you know you will be bad at. Figure out how to enjoy all kinds of games, so you can be a joy at every game night.
A struggle for me when I am playing games like Machi Koro can be seen when I have Analysis Paralysis (a cute term for people who freeze up with indecision) for myself it is because I am trying to focus on the strategy that I am going for, and I realize two turns too late that if I had put more thinking in the operations that I could have saved two turns of building up… and then I start to think about a better strategy for the next game. I know it is unfair to everyone at the table, but I need to be reminded of the game currently, so then I can try to tactfully decide my actions at the moment.
If you struggle with Strategic Thinking and are playing a game that rewards that type, remind yourself to pay attention when another player makes a decision and ask yourself, “Why?” This allows for you to start looking for patterns. Pay attention to body language and facial features of your group (I am assuming of course that you know the people you game with… if you don’t then try to find reads on them ASAP so that you can start to figure out the strategies of others). Strategic thinking and playing requires you to focus on other players actions, and play against where they plan to move next: think Chess.
I have found that my strategies have become more nuanced as I learn to not sweat the small stuff a bit more in my planning. You may find your ability to think two more turns ahead can help you create more solid Tactical choices because you have a better ability to read your opponents? You can find that as you excel in the Operational Thinking, giving yourself a bigger picture mindset informs what systems you need to invest time in. At the end of the day, you should remind yourself that no one way is better than another, but contextually each form has their own advantages over the other.
I hope that this helps you in your development as a gamer and more importantly your development in creating community. Putting together a game night can be hard work, but one of the reasons I love tabletop games is because it is (for the most part) a communal practice. We get the opportunity to build tribes and encourage others to take steps outside of their daily lives and think about the world differently. We get to tell stories and welcome others into those stories! Running a game group should feel like a gift, but anything worth having takes work! Evaluating the people in your group will help you better serve them, and allow for smoother game nights!