Strategy games are often roguelike-likes?


So based on the discussions from a recent open thread on the feeling of improvement and talking current intros to CCGs, I’ve started thinking about how we think about the current wave of roguelike-likes and how that loops back into the sort of experiences people have with some strategy games (including grand strategy, 4X, even up to various solitaire[-like] games). The list of games being brought up in the open thread got me thinking about genre-mixing in the way Kerbal Space Program has that career strategic layer but also each mission launch is kinda an independent run a lot of the time (at least up until later on where you may rely on existing infrastructure already out in space to refuel etc), often bound for failure as you start the game (as an expected part of the process of learning to master the game systems). [Edit: one key difference there being the lack of RNG in KSP: even if each run out into the sandbox can feel like a perma-death fresh voyage into the unknown every time during the initial part of the game before space fills with your junk.]

When discussing Slay the Spire I found myself opening by musing on the strategy games released or going through Early Access in 2018:

…there certainly have been some great games like Mashinky building up in Early Access and BattleTech getting a full release [in 2018]. Into the Breach is another game from earlier in the year that I’ve not written about yet but is very nice. There’s something in the strategy/tactical water this year and it tastes like roguelike-likes. The genres have always been somewhat mingled, what with 4X games (or even solitaire games) being about semi-random runs which build their own story through the mechanics (and that’s where Mashinky fits in), but much of 2018’s output (They Are Billions entered Early Access at the very tail of 2017, I’m counting it) feels explicitly part of the current roguelike-like wave. Sometimes it’s unclear which side of the line games are aiming for (Frostpunk is probably going for more scenario-based rather than the endless replayability of rogue).

Obviously none of this is new. The XCOM 2: War of the Chosen strategic later in 2017 is not a million miles away from the one offered in UFO: Enemy Unknown in 1994 (itself heavily inspired by suggestions from publisher MicroProse based on the 1991 game they also published, Civilization). Back way before we were thinking about the way roguelikes had created a significant influence on other genres building somewhat explicitly in that shape.

But when we consider how these games are often played, repeatedly jumping into semi-randomised initial conditions (with lots of the subsequent material also leaning on RNG, such as the combat encounters in a Total War or X-COM building on random sub-maps) and having a “run” which often end in failure rather than finding the way to a distant win condition. No one is going to argue they meet anything like the Berlin Interpretation but when we widen out to roguelike-likes, this sure does feel like the eternal evolution of a genre that is not just being mined for procedural content & strategic layers but also responsible for keeping the flame alive that bloomed into the modern roguelike-like revival.

What do you think? Separated at birth or are these things less similar than I’m giving them credit for?


It’s funny someone else was thinking this, I just noticed the other day that I play these two genres in a very similar way, in that I have little to no interest in ever really achieving victory or making it to the very end. I just like diving into a game where I can enjoy it mechanically over and over, but with each play session featuring just enough tweaks to the experience that it feels fresh. I think for me it’s the challenge of building an empire/character I like against all odds and with limited resources, it’s just much more enjoyable than the challenge of strategizing and plotting a course for victory that will pay off in 10-20 hours.

Dead Cells and Endless Space 2 are the two I’m digging into right now, and honestly the connections you’ve made resonate with me a lot. The main difference I would note (at least in my experience, often pursuing diplomatic or scientific victory types in Civ or Stellaris) is how the stakes and stress-level feel significantly higher the deeper you go into a rogue-like, whereas in a 4X/Grand Strategy experience the mid to late game often mellows out a lot, asking you to properly maintain what you have built, while the last stages of a rogue-like require you to take risks and use every bit of skill and every technique you’ve mastered for the final push, if that makes sense. Rogue-likes thrive on maintaining that sense of tension all the way through, while strategy games often feature most of the action and busy parts early on in the exploration/discovery/settlement phase.


Yep, totally. It’s a good dividing line to look at experiences as generally falling on one side or the other.

The stress curve (typical difficulty ramp during a single run) is also interesting in how it often goes for roguelike-likes vs roguelikes. The 'like-likes often feel like they have an attainable level of mastery at which they feel like a strategy game once you understand your long-term goal (which is kinda what’s going on - understanding where to take risks early and how you can hit a stride that puts you in a very strong position later on).

Playing Slay the Spire, after some initial rocky play (learning the cards and enemies), becomes something where you are often snowballing and so the later game can go extremely well (the final boss is often the real test so as long as the card draw is working for you, that can go extremely easily). I started the game with L W L L L W L L L L W W W W W… which shows early good luck walking into a strong position early and then learning via runs that felt a lot more roguelike in how the difficulty ramped up as I experimented. Now I’m on the difficulty staircase of Ascension modifiers and jumping into the Daily (and looking at home to improve score there). FTL felt very similar with an early win based almost entirely on lucking into a powerful build that snowballed, a period of learning what was viable and how to adapt to what the RNG threw out to steer most runs towards a viable build, and then pretty consistent ability to get through the game.