Tactics vs Strategy: what the differences are, and why you should care

People sometimes use these terms interchangeably, but they actually refer to two very different things. So what do they mean, really? And why does it matter to you?

The biggest divide in strategy games is the one between ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ games. They fall under the same general umbrella of Strategy, but the experiences they offer vary massively. A unit- and combat-focused game like XCOM is going to require a different way of thinking than a game like Europa Universalis, with its almost infinite paths of progression. The former requires you to live in the moment, making decisions on the fly, while the latter needs in depth planning to meet long term goals.

Understanding that difference can help you judge a game much more deeply. It also can help you to identify exactly why you do or don’t like a game, because you can compare it accurately to other strategy games you’ve played in the past.

What is a Tactical Game?

A tactical game is one in which your main concerns are the moment-to-moment decisions with immediate outcomes; decisions that matter right now. Your long term goals are quite simple, and it’s getting there that takes the majority of your focus.

Every decision you make is important, so the main draw of tactical games comes from making those individual decisions deep and multifaceted. You should think carefully about every action you take, and the advantages and drawbacks to each one. In strategic games, a decision might come down to “does this help me reach my long term goal”, but in tactical games you’re weighing the pros and cons of everything you do.

Like the other Total War games, Total War: Warhammer will have battles primarily focused on tactical combat. Like the other Total War games, Total War: Warhammer will have battles primarily focused on tactical combat.

Positioning is important in a tactical game. Often, this takes the form of physical location on a map, such as in XCOM and Total War, but it might also mean your economic or political ‘positioning’. This is more common in the abstractions of board and card games. In the Game of Thrones LCG, for example, politically positioning yourself such that other players can’t attack you is vital to your success.

Since positioning is important, so is maneuvering. Second guessing and outsmarting your opponent are hallmarks of tactical gameplay, which require you to not only make decisions that are good for you, but also to make decisions that will put you even further ahead of your opposition. For example, in the Game of Thrones example above, correctly guessing which political ‘position’ your opponent is going to adopt means that you can take an opposing role and open them up to attack.

More important than anything else is interactivity with opponents. Positioning and maneuvering are how you interact, and this is core to the experience. Tactical games force you to react to the decisions your opponents are making. The depth and meaningfulness of your decisions become even more so when put into the context of competition.

XCOM is a perfect example of a tactical game. Its battles focus on how you make use of the map, the risks you take and the importance of each decision. The Total War series’ tactical battle system is another example, as are games like Fire Emblem, Bloodbowl, Invisible Inc and Ultimate General: Gettysburg. Traditional games such as Chess and Go are also deeply tactical, and an argument might even be made for the Pokemon games.

What is a Strategic Game?

In contrast to a tactical game, a strategic game is one in which your long term plans and goals are more important than your moment-to-moment actions. You plan before you act, and every action conforms to the plan you make. What is happening right now is only important insofar as it relates to your eventual goals. The purpose of the game is to find the best way towards that goal, whether it be a case of efficiency, speed or even just finding out if it’s possible.

Crusader Kings II is a perfect example of a Crusader Kings II is a perfect example of a "grand strategy" game.

Efficiency is important in a strategic game. Making the best use of what you’ve got will end up being your main focus. Getting from A to B is one thing, but making sure you get there quicker, or with limited resources, is what makes your decisions meaningful.

This efficiency also means balancing payoffs and the value of your decisions. Rather than asking yourself about the positives and negatives of a decision, it means evaluating the long-term consequences and the worth of each decision you make compared to its upfront cost.

To balance the mathematical elements of payoff measurement, strategic games usually include some form of ‘opportunity cost’. An opportunity cost is when choosing one option means losing out on another. In Civilization V, for example, you need to decide what you’re building at any given moment. Every building has a bonus, but you have to decide which is the most important in the long run.

Ultimately, a strategic game is about becoming the best that you can be. Improving your position, making decisions that have the best payoff and best efficiency and seeing long-term plans come to fruition are the joys to be had from a strategic game.

The Civilization series has long been the flagship of strategic games, with its scientific progression and multiple victory conditions leading to interesting long-term decision making. More recently, Paradox’s ‘Grand Strategy’ titles like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings have also seen more popularity, allowing you to choose your own goals while giving you endless different possibilities to reach them. City builders like Sim City and Cities: Skylines offer a different form of strategic gameplay in the style of growing a city to be the best it can be.

The Blending of Tactics and Strategy

The line between tactics and strategy is somewhat arbitrary, of course. The Civilization series would traditionally be called a 4X strategy game, but there are many who feel that its latest incarnation, Civilization V, was more of a tactical war game than a strategy game. The revamped combat system with limited space for units (1 unit per tile), smaller armies and bonuses for positioning reward tactical gameplay, rather than strategic.

Meanwhile, XCOM has scientific progression and building choices that affect how you can equip your soldiers. And the Total War series focuses on the battles and tactics used in them, but also have a strategic map layer to them.

There’s a certain amount of blending tactics and strategy in most games. Strategy is an overall goal, and defines every decision you make, while tactics is the moment-to-moment decision-making that helps you reach that goal. In a tactical game, strategy is the tool you use to define your actions, while in a strategy game, tactics is the tool you use to implement your plan. Where does the real difference lie? In how the game chooses to focus itself, and the enjoyment you get out of it.

Knowing What You Love

Why does the difference matter? It comes down to knowing what you love, and why you love it, but it also means being able to judge a game based on its strengths and its comparison to other games in the same genre. It’s easy to get frustrated with a tactical game because it lacks the depth and complexity of planning that you were expecting, or to get bored with strategic games because there’s very little to focus on in the moment.

It’s important to recognize that while strategy has its place in a tactical game, it’s not the reason to play it, and vice versa. Understanding the differences between these two kinds of games can help you figure out which kind you love best, which will help you make more informed decisions about which ones to buy.

Are Tactical Games Strategy?

Should tactical games be included in the broad umbrella of strategy? Definitely. They should be recognized as both part of the world of strategy games while also being something slightly separate.

The reason to play strategic games is to compare options, make choices and see the outcomes of those choices lead to success or failure. Strategic games give you an end goal to work towards, and you get to choose how you get there. Sometimes you even get to choose what that goal will be. The point of a strategic game is to grow, improve and become better.

The reason to play a tactical game is to test yourself, to use your wits and your knowledge to outsmart an opponent and react to a constantly changing situation. Tactical games give you opponents that you need to beat, and in depth interactions with those opponents. The point of a tactical game is to use your resources to overcome opposition.

It’s interesting to look at how closely intertwined ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ are while still leading to very different results. It’s easy to see that Civilization and XCOM are very different games. They both involve strategic choices and scientific progression. They both involve tactical, map-based combat. But the end result of one is an empire-building game in which progress is the key to victory, while the other relies much more heavily on how you use your wits to approach a troublesome situation.

Knowing which you want to play means knowing what you want to focus on. It’s all strategy, but it’s not all the same.