What Are Grand Strategy Games? Their Core Gameplay Mechanics, Explained


Who hasn’t spent an evening slaughtering their enemy’s peasantry in order to handicap their production capabilities in Age of Empires? Or built an extensive empire from scratch in Civilisation? However, not all strategy war games place such emphasis on warfare or expansion.

Instead, some war games place you in charge of a sovereign state’s government, in a specific era, for a specific time span. We call these grand strategy wargames or grand strategy games. In this article, we will help you understand what is a grand strategy game and what are some gameplay mechanics that set them apart from other genres.

The History of Grand Strategy Games

A map being held

Grand strategy games evolved from table-top wargames. Introduced in the latter half of the 17th century, wargames where initially used as an educational tool for teaching battle tactics to military officers.

However, civilian enthusiasts quickly embraced them and they evolved, portraying warfare on a larger, strategic level. But it wasn’t until the arrival of video games that wargames reached the mainstream audience.

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Of course, there are still wargames that focus on tactics, only that several wargame genres have arisen by now. Some focus on tactics, while others abstract or eliminate battle tactics altogether in favor of strategy and long-term planning.

Some of the earliest grand strategy games are board wargames like Empires in Arms, or Axis & Allies. Yet, video game series like Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron, or Total War are the ones that really made the genre popular.

The Main Gameplay Mechanics of Grand Strategy Games

A screeshot of Europa Universalis IV on Steam

Although some grand strategy games can vary from others, there are several gameplay mechanics that are core to the genre.

1. Warfare

Warfare is often abstract in grand strategy games, but it can be present. Such is the case of the Total War series, where individual battles involve high levels of detail. Another instance of a grand strategy game with tactical battles is Knights of Honor.

Since grand strategy games focus on the strategic level of warfare, they mostly resolve battles through numbers. This is the case with games such as Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings, where your control over the military limits to production and army movement.

2. Economy and Resource Management

Resource management is another feature that is always present in grand strategy games. Allocating resources to fund wars, trading, and managing your treasury is a big part of building a sound strategy.

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Total War, Crusader Kings, Supreme Ruler, and Knights of Honor all have some kind of resource management mechanic. Troops cost money to build and maintain, and bribes are costly too!

You also need to establish commercial relations if you want your economy to flourish. Establishing commercial relations or sending a trader are options in most grand strategy games.

3. International Relations and Diplomacy

International relations are always present in grand strategy games through diplomacy, displayed on a diplomacy panel. You can declare war, make peace, form alliances, exchange provinces, create vassals, embargo enemies, or request assistance against a common foe.

The amount of diplomatic actions you can perform depends on the game, as some have a more in-depth diplomacy system than others. The Total War series, for example, often offers less diplomatic options, since it focuses more on the real-time tactical battles.

Victoria, on the other hand, is a game that you can play without ever going to war; you can achieve your goals only through diplomatic means. This indicates the amount of work developers put into the diplomacy systems for grand strategy games.

Now You Know About Grand Strategy Games

A screenshot of Crusader Kings 2 Launcher

So, as you can see, even when grand strategy games rely on diplomacy a lot, they are wargames at their core. Grand strategy games focuses on planning long-term strategies and management of a state’s resources in order to achieve your set goals.

If Carl von Clausewitz was right and war is policy by other means, then your diplomatic policy is war by other means as well. Grand strategy games are a world where realpolitiks is the rule; choose your allies correctly and then betray them!

Of course, you can play grand strategy games via a variety of platforms, meaning you can get your strategic fix on the go if you wish. You’re not just limited to your PC or game console.


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