Strategic uncertainty is at the core of any good strategy game, and a strategy game without it is more appropriately called a pure puzzle game. This is the term for the events or circumstances in gameplay (that vary) that require the player to adapt their strategy to overcome it. As mentioned before, if there is no strategic uncertainty in a strategy game’s gameplay, then there will be an optimal strategy that can be “solved” and utilized consistently. Now, what else should we be considering with this concept?
First, you should ensure that you’re introducing strategic uncertainty, to begin with, and know how to introduce it if you haven’t already. As previously mentioned, a strategy game is simply a puzzle if there is no strategic uncertainty, so how can we convert a puzzle into a strategy game if we’ve already gone down that road? One move that’s almost universally a good idea is to have at least some of your AI players become capable of using bold or abnormal moves. Even if their moves are technically “bad,” a curveball play from the AI can force the player to adapt and remedy the problem of a predictable AI. Once that’s done with, you can consider adding some one-off events that occur occasionally. These walk a very fine line, as if you create something that can destroy strategies, you risk losing players. As a result, these events should generally be positive events that may nudge a player towards a different playstyle or negative events that can be responded to without completely destroying their work. An example of the former would be providing extra ways for a military ruler to negotiate peacefully with other players, and an example of the latter would be forcing the player to decide how to deal with an environmental disaster, be it through improving eco-habits, abandoning the environment altogether, or some other plan of action.
Next, make sure any strategic uncertainty included in your game is careful balanced towards the end. There’s a good chance you’re familiar with the “victory march” towards the end of strategy games such as Civilization. You’ve gotten ahead of your opponents and it’s just a matter of time before you win due to cascading advantages. This occurs because of a lack of strategic uncertainty in the late game. Most minor events introduced at this stage can simply be ignored by a winning player, and any major uncertainties that get introduced have a good chance of frustrating the player and causing them to quit if you crash their previously working strategy into a brick wall. While the methods to deal with this will vary, if you notice that your game has a victory march at the end, make sure your uncertainties are having enough of an effect.
Finally, it’s important to distinguish uncertainty from randomness. Uncertainty is simply related to the player not knowing what’s coming up next, such as having unknown information about surrounding land or army formations. Randomness, while capable of being called uncertainty, cannot be planned for. Even in the case of uncertainty, you can build a strategy that can adapt to the circumstances, but randomness may result in something entirely off point that contradicts any reasonable deduction you could make. It’s a case of playing dice with chess instead of chess with dice; one has strategy elements in it that a player can abuse, but the other, while still having some strategy elements in it, relies heavily on luck, meaning players are at the will of their rolls.
Important Takeaways: Strategic uncertainty is critical for any strategy game, as one without it is better termed a puzzle game. If you aren’t forced to adapt your plans, optimal strategies will be abused once they’re found. Always make sure you’re introducing strategic uncertainty, be it through your AI or through gameplay. In addition, pay careful attention to strategic uncertainty in the endgame, as the biggest reason for the “victory march” in the endgame is strategic uncertainty being too weak to influence a winning player’s decision making. Finally, make sure you’re not confusing uncertainty with randomness. While uncertainty can be introduced through randomness, randomness often can’t be planned for as it’ll defy any reasonable conclusions that can be made from the information that you have; you’re not being strategic if you just get lucky, but you’re being strategic if you can manipulate your chances of getting that same reward.