Strategy games have always been a favourite of mine. Since the millennium, I’ve been destroying my mates methodically constructed towns in Sim City 3000. Or I was attempting to conquer those pesky Gauls in Total War: Rome. Now, my Steam library is bursting with games like Stellaris, Europa Universalis 4 and Surviving Mars. However much love I have for these games, every time I log in and load them up, I feel like i’m on a knife edge, not sure if i’ll end up rage quitting, uninstalling forever or lobbing my laptop across the room. These games have been built to be overly complicated – a fact I find incredibly frustrating, but it also makes me love playing them even more.
I was a fan of the Civilization series for years. Civ 4 and 5 were high points for the franchise for me. It became less of a challenge in Civilization 6, and frustrated with the lacklustre NPC AI; I fell down the strategy game rabbit hole on Steam. I discovered Paradox Interactive and its library of strategy games so complicated I’d soon find myself shouting at the screen, “Why won’t you work!” “What’s happening?!” and questioning my level of intelligence.
I’ve never been a fan of hand-holding games with tutorials that take up 30 minutes of gameplay. Give me a choice to follow or ignore the tutorial. Include pop-ups that I can read, or let me go totally off-grid and click it off the screen with barely a glance. I see it as an extra level of difficulty, like how I tried to destroy a thresher maw in Mass Effect 2 Legendary Edition with only a hand cannon pistol. Let me find my way, even if that means scrambling around in the dark and screaming into the void. Crusader Kings 3 left me so dumbfounded I teamed up with my brother (who was as confused as I was), and we spent an entire evening together trying to figure out the basic mechanics. Did we really have to order the murder of our six-year-old nephew so we could be nearer in line to the throne? The game seemed to think so.
It might sound like I’m moaning, but it’s a hatred borne of adoration because there’s just so much to love hidden away in the genre’s complexities. My little ritual of sitting at my computer, plugging in headphones with a strong cup of coffee beside me and loading up a game I’m convinced today I’ll master. Or at the least, figure out how to navigate. It’s a great way to digest a new album I’ve been meaning to give a listen. For instance, the juxtaposition between Billy Nomates‘ 2020 debut album and Europa Universalis 4 had me chuckling.
Friends now hesitate to ask the question, “What game are you playing right now?” I love explaining in detail how I’m colonising and terraforming Mars, but I’ve only managed to grow lichen on the surface so far because of the lack of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I love to watch the slow realisation on their faces that I may have actually lost my mind. I love it when something finally clicks, and I understand how I can use Zro, a rare resource in Stellaris. Or I’ve figured out how to have diplomatic relations with other nations/species without going to war and constantly being obliterated and then starting over. That evening I spent sat next to my brother in front of his PC, we weren’t just tearing our hair out. We caught up, we had a laugh and we still joke about how after four hours we still couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be doing.
I’ve heard friends say playing these games and getting to grips with them, then actually achieving anything feels like a second job. I disagree. The grind is what makes it worth it. Give me a difficult strategy game that a win is when you’re not constantly reacting to catastrophe, and you can finally begin to manage your resources. I don’t want to play a game where when everything falls into place your character is so overpowered, the game is no longer challenging. Or you find you have enough money/resources to buy and do anything you want in the game instantly. That’s where a game loses my interest. No thanks, not for me. Ending the game on top isn’t always my aim. A first playthrough might be about feeling my way, getting a handle on the game mechanics and figuring out what’s important – what should be my focus in my actual, proper playthrough.
I don’t think I’ll stop playing strategy games. Maybe I’m nostalgic for when games pushed you in at the deep end without even a hint of how to swim. Above all else, I love the challenge, the satisfaction and that warm, smug feeling I get when I’ve figured out how to bring up a specific resource sub-menu. Now that’s a win.