The Evolution of Strategy in Games

June 3, 2016 - Blog

Knowing a bit about the way strategy evolves in games can help climb the learning curve faster. When anyone sits down to play a new new game, learning to play proceeds in a pattern of repeating phases: gestalt, epiphany, pivot. That gives us a diagram like this:

Evolution of strategy in games

Let’s start with a definition of terms:

Comprehension Threshold

Learning a game starts with confusion. When new players encounter a game, they cross the comprehension threshold when their interaction with the game goes from “What the hell is this?” to “Oh, I get it.” Think of the game Werewolf. In Werewolf, most players cross the comprehension threshold in a few minutes as the moderator explains the game. When everyone understands, players close their eyes and the first round begins. Werewolf has a low comprehension threshold because  it lends itself to being learned experientially; you actually don’t have to explain anything more than the general objective of the game (to find the werewolf) in a few sentences and the rest can be learned as you play and the moderator tells everyone what to do. When the players understand the rules, the game is afoot.


The Gestalt stage happens when the sum of the game’s parts come together in an organized whole in the mind of the player. Imagine a mosaic, with each colored tile a rule of the game, the first gestalt forms when the tiles organize themselves into a recognizable picture and the player has the feeling of “I get it.”

Forming new gestalts is a constant process, as most games respond to the choices and strategies the players come up with and players have to adapt to each other’s behavior.


An epiphany comes when a player sees a pattern in the game senses a way to exploit it to their advantage. Between the gestalt and the epiphany you are running along the rails of the mechanics of the game; rolling dice, collecting resources, watching, learning, putting things together. The first epiphany lifts a player off the mere mechanics and into the realm of strategy. For example, think of the game Checkers. The mechanics of Checkers are fairly simple – you move your piece and try to jump your opponents pieces. The epiphany of the “double jump” awaits every new Checkers player when they realize that by manipulating the game mechanics they can lure their opponent into leaving openings for jumping two pieces in one turn.


Pivoting is using a strategy epiphany to change the landscape of the game. A pivot puts an epiphany into effect. Pivots wait latently in the rules of the game until players discover them as they climb the strategic learning curve.

Dominant Strategy

The dominant strategy is a strategy that must be pursued to achieve victory. The strength of the dominant strategy is so great that if anyone does not pursue it (as long as someone else in the game is pursuing it), they have no hope of winning. For a great example of a dominant strategy, read this post on how to win Werewolf every time. To take another example, think of what happens in Monopoly when one player fills their properties with hotels. The other players don’t have a chance of winning unless they put hotels on their properties as well. The dominant strategy dictates game behavior and it is the moment players exit the cycle in the diagram above. Dominant strategies kill strategic innovation.

So What?

Does knowing how the strategy cycle works actually help play games better? Yes. A few observations:

  1. Change is ecological: Change in a game is not mechanical, but ecological. If you insert a new species into a habitat and food chain, you don’t have the old habitat plus one new species; you have an entirely different habitat. The introduction of the new species causes ripple effects that alter the entire system. Change in games is like that.
  2. Pivots echo through the game system: Each pivot causes change in the game system, but because humans learn slowly and some pivots are less obvious than others, it takes time for the effects of a pivot to ripple through the game system. Pivots destabilize a game system; if you are the one who pivoted, you can take advantage of those instability.
  3. Pivots create competitive advantage: The player who has completed the most cycles around the diagram will have a competitive advantage. To win, you don’t have to have the greatest strategy; you only have to have a slightly better strategy than your opponents. By inserting more change into the game system, you can knock players back into the gestalt phase as they make sense of a strategic topography that is different than it once was. In the time it takes for your opponents to form a new gestalt you can seize the advantage.
  4. Pivots lose value as they change the game system: An example will put flesh on this idea: Think of the game Dodgeball, where two teams try to hit each other with dodgeballs from a distance. In most games, there is a fixed number of dodgeballs in the game system. An epiphany to be had here is to realize that, by collecting the dodgeballs instead of throwing them, a team can gain a huge advantage. The usefulness of the advantage is proportional to the amount of time one team can collect the balls before the other team realizes what is happening. If they can get all the balls; they can attack without worrying about defending or can restrict the amount of balls in the game system as needed. If the other team figures out what they are doing, the competitive advantage quickly disappears.
  5. “Systems thinking” creates epiphanies: Ability to see patterns that develop is important. Seeing patterns that are about to develop is even more important. A key skill in game strategy is to intuitively quantify a game system and then start asking cause and effect question with an eye to how they will effect the system ahead of your opponents.
  6. You only have to stay one cycle ahead to win: Since advantage is relative to how many times your opponents have gone through the gestalt>epiphany>pivot cycle, you only have to stay one cycle ahead of them to retain your advantage.
  7. Obfuscation retains your advantage: As soon as your strategy development is “out,” you start to lose its advantage. Players who hide their strategy or belie that they have completed fewer cycles than they have can delay the effects of their strategy from changing the game system and retain their advantage.

Can you see other ways to play the strategic learning cycle to your advantage? Share your ideas below.


› tags: Game Design /

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