Firstly, he believes that graphics that don’t convey information, as well as bad user interfaces and tutorials, put many off the genre.
“If players A) don’t know what’s important, or B) don’t know what tools are available to them, then how are they supposed to make meaningful decisions?” he asked.
“The very essence of a strategy game is evaluating situations, crafting plans to achieve a goal, and adapting as necessary during execution. Many titles fail right from the start, and don’t provide players with enough information to properly evaluate what’s going on.”
Shafer also carefully distinguished “strategy” from “puzzle solving”, with the latter offering only one true solution and therefore no replayability.
“A true strategy game has no ‘correct’ solution, and instead offers players a variety of tools to achieve a goal,” he wrote.
“It’s impossible to achieve perfect balance, so there will always be some puzzle-like elements in all strategy titles, but some completely abandon this pursuit and can be boiled down into a small subset of correct play.
“The entertainment provided by a strategy game comes from facing a challenge, developing an answer for it, and then overcoming that challenge.”
Midgame drag was also singled out by Shafer, who said that many games outstayed their welcome simply because their brief and subsequent marketing demanded it.
“In a game that claims to cover all of history, it would be a big faux pas if the developers said, ‘well, the game stops being fun around 1600 AD, so we’ll just end it there’,” he wrote.
So-called “4X” (exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination) titles were particularly bad in this regard, he added.
“Unfortunately, once you get halfway through a game the first two Xs – by far the most enjoyable for many players – are pretty much wrapped up.”
Finally, Shafer believes there are too many distractions in modern strategy games.
“The essence of a good strategy game is having the information to make difficult, interesting decisions. A trap many games fall into is to include so much stuff that determining what’s important becomes difficult. And that’s not fun,” he said.
“If players can’t wrap their head around the options available to them, how are they to choose one? And even if they do, how can their choice have any meaning?”