Strategy vs Tactics: Are tactical games with minimal strategy all luck?

I recently posted a comment on Twitter as follows: "Amazing to me how many gamers don't understand that just because a game is tactical and not strategic doesn't mean it is random and all luck"

This comment drove a good number of likes and retweets, a variety of replies agreeing or disagreeing, and even an invite to be on a podcast called "The State of Games" to discuss. As such, I thought I would delve deeper into this prior to going on the podcast and really drill down on what I meant, and my thoughts on this subject. 

Now as you probably know, Twitter limits characters. So just to be clear I want to emphasize my comment is specific to Board Games. You probably guessed that, but best to frame the topic properly. 

Now let's dive in. First and foremost, what is strategy? What are tactics? Well I like this description:

Strategy - "Larger, overall plan that can comprise several tactics."

Tactics - "Plans, tasks, or procedures that can be carried out; may be part of a larger strategy. 


I think the easiest way for us as gamers to think about this is to think of strategy as how you can best achieve your desired results (to win the game) over the long term (aka full game). And the best way to think about Tactics is what can you do given the current state of the game to give yourself the best chance to achieve some short term result. 

Now here is the thing... in a strategy game where you can plan and decide exactly how you want to approach the game with expectation of little to no interference, the tactics you employ will all be geared toward achieving your long term strategy. Think about your favorite Euro style game or engine building games and you can visualize just what I am talking about. It can be said that you are completely in control. Nothing unexpected will happen. It will all come down to A) was your strategy better than your opponents; and B) were you able to execute your strategy better than your opponents. Fail at either and you will not achieve the desired results. There are probably many of you reading this that are nodding your head and thinking "Oh yeah I love that kind of game." Others may be thinking it sounds kind of boring. In my opinion, the ones that are most likely to enjoy more strategic games are the ones that want to match wits with their opponents and be the one that comes out on top. 

So what about the comment though? What game has minimal strategy but lots of tactical play? Well you don't have to look much farther than one of the most popular games in the world, Poker. There is overwhelming evidence that proves that poker is a game of skill, yet undoubtedly someone reading this thinks it is all luck of the draw. That is crazy to me, that anyone that has played the game would not realize how much skill is involved. BUT, having said that, it is also true that the best players in the world can easily lose a hand of poker to a complete novice. They could even lose a session to a novice! Though the more hands played the more dramatically the chances of the novice winning drop, so that is much more unlikely. Why? Did the pro have an amazing strategy that she was going to mentally and magically will all the best cards to the top of the deck for herself? No, it is because she employs the proper tactics given the wide range of variables she is considering like the opponents actions, the cards, tells, her table image, probability and odds, and on and on... while the novice is just excited that they have the possibility at a straight if that one card shows up. 

(Disclaimer: I realize that there is strategy in poker particularly in tournaments, so I'll just throw that in here to let you know I do understand that, before you roast me for saying poker is not strategic. But in most cash games I believe there isn't much strategy other than being prepared as you don't know much or anything about your opponents)

Yeah but what about board games? Well my very own design, Hostage Negotiator, is a great example. Go read the comments on the games BGG ratings. Won't take you long to find one that says "it all comes down to how the dice roll for you. Too much luck" or something akin to that.  Well you can guess whether I agree with that or not, but rather than guess let me explain.

Is there strategy in Hostage Negotiator? A little but not a ton. You can decide to employ a threat reduction strategy or an extraction strategy, but inevitably the game will hit you with something unexpected - a random event or dice results that don't go your way (or that do) - and if you do not adapt and make decisions tactically based on the current state of the game , your chances of failure substantially increase. You must think tactically and be able to adapt, not blindly follow a strategy you decided on at the beginning of the game. 

Well it must be all luck! Hardly. Most tactical games are about probability and risk management. About putting yourself in the best position to win. And there is skill in that. In poker you will hear "Don't be results oriented" which means, if you made the right play and you still lost the hand, well it doesn't mean that it wasn't the right play. Just like in Hostage Negotiator if you lose to a failed stand up dice roll at the end of the game it doesn't mean that the entire game was luck. It took good play to even get to that point. Losing a single instance of something does not invalidate the decisions you made to get to that point - unless your entire way of thinking is to be results oriented. 

Let's take another extremely popular game that is VERY tactical - Pandemic. Someone list in the comments for me the different strategies you might decide execute BEFORE the game starts in Pandemic? Tough to do isn't it? That is because so much of the game -and what moves are best- is determined by what cities show up, where the player pawns are, what cards you have, etc. The current state of the game if you will. But the uncertainty of it all, the surprises, it all adds up to a very tense exciting game that has a lot to do with skillful tactical decisions and a little to do with luck. 

A lot of this comes down to gamer preference or what you enjoy. If you want predictability, a high level of control, little to no surprises, and like games where the best/smartest/most experienced player is likely to win, then you probably like the high strategy games. Note that the tactical nature of a strategy game can vary widely!  But if you want uncertainty, difficult situations to resolve, big surprises, and epic moments where you may play near perfectly and still lose, then you may be just the right sort of gamer that would enjoy a low-strategy highly tactical game. 

I'm interested in your thoughts and comments! Am I on the mark here or have I missed it? Tell me what you think!