As gamers, we all have genres of games that we gravitate towards or shy away from. For me personally, I find myself playing more platformers and RPGs than any other genre. But I don’t really like to play strategy games. As a matter of fact, I’m afraid to play them.
Tactical RPGs, RTS, tower defense, auto battlers, 4X games — I’ve always been afraid to ever play them. It’s not like it’s a primal fear in the same way that people are afraid of heights or spiders. If they show up as minigames in a much larger game that isn’t a strategy game, I tend to be fine with them. I recognize that those minigames aren’t the main attraction, and if I want to, I can simply ignore them or just grit my teeth and barrel through it. But when a game is entirely centered around strategy mechanics, then I start to stress out and find myself getting incredibly anxious while playing them.
There are plenty of reasons as to why I try to avoid them at all costs, but mostly I think it’s that I always feel like I’m doing something wrong in strategy games. When I’m playing an action game, the feedback is immediate. If I am damaging the enemy, then I am playing the game correctly, and if I am getting a huge combo or score, then I am playing the game well. If I take damage, then I must be doing something wrong. The conveyance is almost immediate, but in a strategy game, I have no idea whether the move I’m doing is going to be right or wrong until a long period of time after I made my decision. Then when the move is made, sometimes even if it is the right move, something may have happened that’s entirely out of my control, like the enemy scoring a critical hit, making the game punish me for having bad luck.
There’s this creeping sensation when I play a strategy game that I’m always one step away from failure and that I’ll be punished severely for it. It may be the death of one of my best units or getting a “game over” that sends me back hours, but each punishment feels so significant that I wonder what’s even the point of continuing. If my best unit is dead, or several of them die at once, what’s the point in pushing on if I’m just delaying the inevitable? If I spent over an hour on a mission only to be completely wiped, it’s a huge ask of me to go back in, try again, and potentially waste even more time on a mission that I may just fail again.
I have been trying to break out of my comfort zone, and some attempts have been mildly successful. Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Fire Emblem Engage have offered up fairly easy introductions to the genre, but whenever I play them I feel like I’m not really playing them as intended. When I played through Three Houses for the first time, I played it on normal mode without permadeath, but every time a unit died the game felt incomplete, like the punishment was too light and more of a slap on the wrist. I was making these monumental decisions, but the game interacted with me as if it had kid gloves on. Even if I made a big mistake, the game allowed me to rewind to a previous turn and try again, which in the moment was a sigh of relief, but in the long run made me find the game too easy.
I understand that those were mechanics that were designed to help make the games more accessible and user-friendly, but at the same time I felt like I wasn’t playing a real Fire Emblem game. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was oftentimes abusing those mechanics in a way that wasn’t teaching me how to better strategize for other Fire Emblem games. In Three Houses, I would throw all of my units at the objective and just beat the enemy senselessly until I won, lost units be damned, which would have resulted in my failure in most other entries in the series. When Engage came out earlier in the year, I made a concentrated effort to play it with permadeath on and not use the retry system so that I could have a more authentic experience. Some of my units did die, but I couldn’t help but stress at every single move I was making, worrying if the next turn would spell my doom.
I know this is a “me” problem, and I’ve been looking for strategy games that would help mitigate my anxiety. Thankfully, I found it in the form of the Advance Wars remake. Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp remakes the first two Advance Wars games and also recontextualizes for me the philosophies behind both of those games developments. When the first game released in the West in 2001, it was the first time a game in the Wars franchise had launched outside of Japan. It was designed to be beginner-friendly and offer up a much more casual experience compared to its sister series Fire Emblem, as they were both developed by Intelligent Systems. Unlike that series and its own Western debut title, you don’t have to worry as much about stats and more complex management systems. And you know what? That’s fine by me.
With its bright toy box-inspired visuals, Advance Wars 1+2 presents itself as a very lighthearted experience. Sure, it’s a game about a world at war, which may be a bit iffy metatextually given the real-world horrors and atrocities of war, but once you’re able to get through that and just focus on the game itself, it presents itself incredibly well to newcomers to strategy games. The first thing you face is an in-depth tutorial system that goes over virtually every mechanic you will need to know when playing the game, with future missions introducing new forms of transport and artillery that you’ll be able to use. It never front-loads you with too many mechanics, but instead spaces them out so you can figure out how they operate and integrate them into your strategies.
The difficulty also paces itself well, and there are no sudden changes that will leave you scrambling and cursing at the game for presenting a challenge you had no way of preparing for. As you play through missions, the game will even offer some advice on how you can best defeat the enemy and sometimes present you with multiple avenues of attack. It’s never anything mind-blowing, but it’s enough room to allow you to craft the ideal strategy to defeat the enemy commanding officer.
As I was playing through Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp, never did it cross my mind to look up a walkthrough. I felt the desire to make my own decisions and see if they paid off or not. If they did, it was a great feeling, but if I failed, the punishment was appropriate. I nearly expected my CO to die upon failure and I could never use them again, but instead it was just a game over and I could restart the mission. And while I did lose progress, because the missions weren’t too terribly long, I didn’t feel instantly deflated. I felt eager to get back in and try again, and I assume this is a vestige of the portable nature of the original Advance Wars games. What served as a smart idea for portable play has now become a great learning tool for those who are getting into strategy games.
While I haven’t started its sequel, Black Hole Rising, yet, I’m happy at least that the first Advance Wars remake not only manages to be a fun game, but has helped to build up my confidence with strategy games. I’m by no means ready to tackle more difficult and demanding games like XCOM, Age of Empires, Civilization, or StarCraft, but I feel like I have enough confidence to try slightly more challenging, yet fun entries in the genre. There are some I am eager to tackle like Final Fantasy Tactics, Mario + Rabbids, and the Valkyria Chronicles series, but I want to try to overcome my fears about the genre and get into more strategy franchises. And if it becomes one of my go-to genres, then I would almost certainly have to thank Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp for giving me the confidence to try it.