Top 10 Mind-bending Strategy Games

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Chess is considered one of the classic mind-bending strategy games.

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Introduction to Top 10 Mind-bending Strategy Games

Many of us drop in at the gym regularly to keep our bodies fit and flexible, but what about our minds? Strategy games provide one of the best workouts going for keeping the brain in shape -- and they can be a ton of fun.

A strategy game is one that requires thinking. It is not based on luck (as with roulette), or on physical skill (as with table tennis), or on quick reactions (as with first-person shooter video games). The rules of strategy games can be simple or complex, but what they all have in common is that players need to look ahead, plan and then carry out a strategy in order to win.

Strategy games have been around for centuries. One of the oldest and best known is chess. It uses only six types of pieces on an 8 by 8 board, and the basics can be learned in an hour or so, yet the complexity of the strategy is limitless. The number of possible chess positions after seven moves is more than 3 billion [source: Chess.com].

But strategy is not just about numbers. Chess, for example, pits two intelligences against each other, each with his own strategy. The challenge of the game -- and much of its excitement -- is in countering your opponent's strategy while pursuing your own. In computer versions, the opponent is the artificial intelligence (AI) that is built into the game's software.

What makes a game mind-bending? The best games demand both rigorous thinking and finely tuned intuition to outwit a human or computer opponent. The games may allow for subtle feints or include unexpected twists. What finally marks mind-bending strategy games is that they keep you engaged -- they're so involving that you don't want to stop playing.

There are two main mediums of mind-bending strategy games: analog and digital. Analog games, such as chess or Go, use a board or some other mechanical device for play. Digital games are played on a computer or a dedicated gaming platform such as Nintendo DS, Xbox or Sony PlayStation. Computer games may cost anywhere from $10 to $60 or more, although some are available as free downloads.

In addition to these mediums, strategy games can be divided up in two key types: turn-based and real-time. Real-time strategy differs from turn-based strategy in that players are constantly making moves instead of waiting on their next turn. You can read more about these types in the upcoming sections.

Read on to learn about some of the most mind-bending games you can play.

Turn-based Strategy Games

In turn-based strategy (TBS) computer games, players take turns, much as they do in a board game (early computer TBS games were adaptations of board games). They are often war games, with complicated strategic elements. A player has plenty of time to figure out strategy before getting to take his or her next turn.

10: Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares

Master of Orion II (MOO2) is one of the premier empire-building computer games, and it can be played by one or multiple players. It's a turn-based strategy game (TBS), which allows players plenty of time to plot and carry out really complex strategies.

Here's how the game works: You set up colonies on planets, grow their populations, and put them to work making weapons or defenses and producing food for other colonies. MOO2 lets you expand through a treacherous universe, colonizing, building and fighting when you have to. To win, you'll need to develop new technologies to support growth and defeat your enemies.

The most mind-bending aspect of MOO2 is the combination of grand objectives -- the control of the entire universe -- with the very detailed management of each facet of your empire. Another fascinating angle is that you will need to form diplomatic alliances with other races in order to further your goals.

Turn-based games are not as popular as they once were -- MOO2 was introduced in 1996 [source: Ward]. But the game, which spawned many other science-fiction exploration games, is still considered by many to be a fun and challenging adventure.

War Games

These board games test military strategy with rules that replicate the conditions of actual wars. Players decide battles by weighing relative strength of the forces and rolling dice to decide the outcome. Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, war games have retained a loyal band of players. Participants enjoy investigating the "what ifs" of history and trying out their own strategy ideas.

9: Axis & Allies

We often have the idea that the outcome of a great conflict such as World War II was predestined -- that the Allies' victory was inevitable. A game like Axis & Allies teaches that victory is really the result of hundreds of strategy decisions and that at many points the course of the war might have changed.

Axis & Allies is a board game that recreates the campaigns of the war on a strategic level. Up to five players in two teams control the forces of the key countries involved. They maneuver hundreds of pieces representing ground, air and naval forces around a large map. At the same time, they have to pay attention to production of and research into new weapons.

The game was released in 1981 and has spawned many variations that put the focus on various aspects of the war -- the Pacific, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge [source: Axis and Allies.org]. Learning the basic rules is not difficult, but players quickly realize that managing forces on a grand scale can be a formidable and mind-bending challenge. Though dice are rolled to decide battles, the luck element is minimal because so much of the rest of it depends on strategic decision-making.

Strategy in the game reflects history. The player controlling Germany should probably attack Russia early. Japan must secure Asia, Britain can do well by staking a position in Africa. Games typically last four hours, but some can last much longer.

Real-time Strategy (RTS) Games

Real-time strategy games combine resource management -- building and amassing weapons, for example -- with battles in an ongoing action environment. They require both thinking ahead and reacting to events as they unfold. They differ from turn-based strategy games in that all players are constantly acting and reacting instead of waiting for their next turn.

8: Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance

Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance is one of the most challenging of the real-time strategy (RTS) games. Designed to run on a personal computer, this game features huge battles that sprawl over a large virtual battlefield. It was released in November 2007 as an expansion of the original Supreme Commander, which came out in February of that year [source: Ocampo].

Forged Alliance continues the story of a 1,000-year war among different factions of humanity. It provides challenging missions for a single player and also has a multi-player option. A player chooses a faction and takes command of air, land and sea weapons and resources, putting them to work to outwit and destroy the enemy. Using his armored command unit -- a giant robot -- a player builds tanks, aircraft and other units and sends them into battle.

To play the game well, players need to balance the production of resources with successful military strategy. Each mission has its own victory conditions, and there are many ways games can be resolved, including defeating enemies with nuclear weapons. The game has a steep learning curve -- it takes patience and experience to master. Individual games can last several hours.

The mind-bender here is the sheer scope of the game. Players proceed across vast maps on intricate missions. They can give detailed instructions to their forces, which may consist of hundreds of units, by means of mouse clicks on the game's controls.

GIPF Series

The GIPF series is a collection of six sleekly designed abstract games which may be played separately but are designed to work together as one entire game. It's named for the first game in the series, GIPF, but the others are DVONN, TAMSK, PUNCT, TZAAR, YINSH and ZERTZ.

7: DVONN

Computer games are great, but traditional analog games, usually played on a board, can be just as challenging and exciting. DVONN is an abstract, two-player game with very simple rules and incredibly complex possibilities. Game developer Kris Burm created it in 2001 as part of the GIPF series of games [source: Board Game Geek].

DVONN players each place 23 counters on a grid and take turns moving them. The basic idea is to create stacks with your piece on top by jumping and landing on another piece or stack. If you land on your opponent's stack, you take control of it. As a stack grows it can, and must, move one space for each piece in it. Large stacks eventually become immobile -- there aren't enough spaces on the board for them to complete a move. The game ends when neither player can move any stacks. Each player's stacks are piled on top of each other, and the player with the highest combined stack wins.

There's another twist. All pieces and stacks must be connected directly or through a chain of other pieces, to one of three red pieces called DVONN pieces which are also on the board. If they're not, they are immediately removed.

Different strategies are needed in the placement and movement phases. Placing pieces near the edge of the board and keeping pieces spread out are important tactics. It's important not to build stacks too high early in the game, because large, immobile stacks are vulnerable to being captured by your opponent or cut off from a DVONN piece.

What makes the game a mind-bender is that everything can change right up to the last move. For example, you seem to be winning but your opponent makes a move that cuts you off from your DVONN piece anchor, wiping out a crucial stack. The end game can be a stunner.

6: Dawn of Discovery

If you think of computer games as mainly a realm of blasting and annihilating, Dawn of Discovery may change your view. Set in the 15th century, the game requires the player to begin with a group of peasants in the Occident, build a village, amass resources, expand the middle class, construct ships, then go explore the Orient. Conflict and battles may happen, but they are not essential to the vast work of building a society.

Dawn of Discovery, a real-time strategy game, lets players either pursue specific missions or engage in an open-ended continuous game. The contest is for one player, but that person can and must interact with other factions controlled by the game's artificial intelligence. Alliances can be as important to winning the game as battles. The game was released in 2009 and is available for PCs, as well as for Nintendo DS and Wii platforms [source: Petit].

The mind-bending aspect of this game is that it allows a player to win without combat, simply by creating a successful society. Instead of the shooting and bombing that are the foundation of many digital strategy games, a player can focus on sending emissaries to trade with other civilizations while making sure the conditions are in place to manufacture leather jerkins and other goods needed by his population. In doing so, Dawn of Discovery can give insights into real-world economics.

Tic Tac Toe

Pentago might remind you of Tic Tac Toe (called Noughts and Crosses in England). Though this child's game usually ends in a tie when undertaken by experienced players, it's considered by many to actually be the first game played on a computer. The EDSAC machine at Cambridge University was one of the first programmable computers, and in 1949 a Ph.D. student wrote software to allow it to play Tic Tac Toe [source: Adit].

5: Pentago

All you have to do to win Pentago is place five marbles in a row on a 6 by 6 wooden grid, which is actually made up of four smaller 3 by 3 grids. Sound easy? There's a mind-bending twist to this game that makes it much more complex. After placing a marble, a player gets to twist one of the four smaller grids 90 degrees.

Few strategy games have rules that are so simple and play that's so subtle and quirky. You set your strategy, but your opponent can thwart you by simply twisting a section in a way you didn't expect. All kinds of traps and feints are possible.

The game, which retails for about $25, has a classic look, with a natural wooden board and white and colored marbles. Introduced in 2004, it has won several "game of the year" prizes [source: Pentago].

The Birth of Real-Time Strategy

The first influential RTS video game was Dune II, developed by Brett Sperry in 1992. Many of the ideas that are found in RTS games today -- building bases, different weapons available to different players -- were pioneered in Dune II [source: Walker].

4: Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

Warcraft III is a real-time strategy computer game that takes players to the world of Azeroth, which is reminiscent of the setting of The Lord of the Rings. You can select any of four races to play: humans, orcs, night elves and the undead. Each has special strengths and weaknesses. You set out to build structures and gather resources. Though victory conditions can vary, most missions require destroying the enemy base in order to win.

The mind-bending aspect of Warcraft III is the variety of strategies available. Each race requires a different approach to the game. In addition, the game includes a world editor, which lets you set up missions, game conditions and whole worlds to your liking.

Warcraft III can accommodate multiple players and has a light role-playing aspect, so that players can adopt the persona of a hero as they lead their race toward conquest.

Warcraft III, released in 2002, was an elaboration of the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, which dates back to 1994 [source: Gamespot]. There are many expansions and versions (as well as novels and board games) in the Warcraft line, but Warcraft III was labeled "one of the undisputed classics" by Game Spot [source: Kasavin].

The Power of the Human Brain

A computer can beat the best human in chess, but Bulgarian grandmaster Kiril Georgiev pulled off an impressive feat in February 2009 when he played a total of 360 games simultaneously in one large room. The marathon lasted more than 14 hours -- Georgiev lost only six of the games [source: World Records Academy].

3: Arimaa

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue computer defeated chess champion Garry Kasperov. The event inspired computer scientist Omar Syed to invent a new game that was simple to learn but so strategically complex that no computer could master it. In 2002, he published the rules to Arimaa and offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could develop a computer program that could defeat the best human players [source: Arimaa]. Arimaa has attracted many fans since, although no one had won the prize as of early 2010.

Arimaa is played on a chess board and uses similar pieces, which are shaped like animals: rabbits, cats, dogs, horses, a camel and an elephant. The goal is to move one of eight rabbits to the other end of the board. A number of rules give the game its mind-bending complexity:

  • There is no fixed starting position; players set up their 16 pieces anywhere in the first two rows.
  • Each player can make four moves per turn.
  • A player can push or pull opponents' pieces with a stronger piece of his own.

On average, there are 17,000 possible moves on each turn of Arimaa [source: Arimaa]. Unlike in chess, the game has no set opening. Players find it more of a strategic challenge than chess, which often revolves around tactical battles. Pattern recognition and global thinking are important. Arimaa sets are available for about $40, and the game can be played online as well.

The 4X Concept

Galactic Civilizations II (GC2) is an example of a popular class of video games called 4X, which stands for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. These empire-building games involve warfare, but also rely heavily on diplomacy, research, technology and resource management. Many of the games take place in outer space, but some, such as Civilization, use Earth-based environments.

2: Galactic Civilizations II: The Dread Lords

Galactic Civilizations II, like Master of Orion, is a turn-based strategy game. A player takes command of one of the rival races and sets out to control a galaxy, all with 3-dimensional graphics. The player has to research technologies, build factories, amass resources and explore star systems. A particularly appealing facet is the ability to design your own starships based on the technology you've developed. The game does not have a multiplayer option, so first the player takes his turn, then the machine responds.

Galactic Civilizations II, which was released in 2006, has exceptional artificial intelligence [source: Lackey]. Playing by the same rules as the human player, the game's AI acts very much like another human player could by lying, conniving and strategizing to thwart you.

The mind-bending quality of GC2 is that there are multiple ways to win. You can try for victory by spreading cultural influence, using your wealth and technological superiority to attract allies. Or you can turn ruthless and become a tyrant who conquers by military might alone. Victory comes when you have gained control of the universe, either by destroying enemies or forming alliances with other races. No matter what your strategy, you have to balance power with diplomacy, making alliances where they're to your advantage.

The richness and complexity of the GC2 world has attracted strategy gamers since its inception. As one reviewer put it, "It's the type of game that typifies the 'one more turn' feeling that has you riveted to your monitor until 4 a.m." [source: Rausch].

A Remedy for Aging Brains?

Japanese neurosurgeon Kaneko Mitsuo has studied the effect that playing Go has on older adults. Using brain scans, he believes a section of the brain that may atrophy in dementia patients may also be the same part that is used most when playing games such as Go. As a result, he believes that playing Go may be able to reverse common senile dementia [source: Bradley]. Mitsuo is not alone. Randomized trials by the U.S. National Institutes of Health have shown that playing certain types of games -- though not a mental health cure -- can keep the brain healthy [source: Tomaselli]. Further research is needed before any advances can be conclusive.

1: Go

It's perhaps no coincidence that the most mind-bending of all strategy games is also the oldest. The game of Go dates back to at least 3,000 years ago. Its rules are simple, yet mastering it requires many years of experience [source: British Go Association].

The object of Go is to capture territory. Each player places stones on a 19 by 19 grid alternately. Players place black or white stones on the intersections of the lines on the board. Areas that are enclosed by one player's pieces count for that person in the final tally. Pieces that are surrounded by opposite colored stones are captured and removed. The game ends when both players pass in succession -- neither feels he can take more territory or capture more stones. The territory each player controls is calculated, reduced by the number of his pieces that have been captured. The player with the highest score wins.

It may sound simple, but the strategic possibilities of the game are endless. No two games are alike. The truly challenging thing about Go is that there is no set strategy that works. The only way to win is to achieve a balance of attack and defense. The situation changes with every move, so each player must be flexible and try to read his opponent's strategy. Though the game requires careful analysis, it also demands intuition to recognize patterns and spot opportunities.

Go games range from introductory kits for $30 to elaborate sets with glass stones and wooden bowls to hold them, and veneer boards costing $190 and more. You can also play the game online.

Learn more about playing and winning these mind-bending strategy games and others by visiting the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Adit Software. "The History of Noughts and Crosses." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.adit.co.uk/html/noughts_and_crosses.html
  • Arimaa. "Arimaa Challenge." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://arimaa.com/arimaa/challenge/
  • Arimaa. :"Arimaa, the Next Challenge." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://arimaa.com/arimaa/
  • Axis and Allies.org. Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.axisandallies.org/
  • Board Game Geek. "DVONN." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2346/dvonn
  • Board Game Geek. "Pentago." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/19841/pentago
  • Bradley, Milton S. "The Pleasurable Way to a Superior Mind." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://users.eniinternet.com/bradleym/Mind.html
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  • Kasavin, Greg. "Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos Review" Game Spot. Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/warcraft3reignofchaos/review.html
  • Lackey, Jeff. "Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords Review." Game Spot. Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/galacticcivilizations2/review.html?page=2
  • Ocampo, Jason. "Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance Review." Game Spot. Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/supremecommanderforgedalliance/review.html?om_act=convert&om_clk=gssummary&tag=summary;read-review
  • Pentago. "2006 Brochure." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://www.pentago.com/pdfs/Brouchure2006.pdf
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  • Rausch, Allen. "Galactic Civilizations II: The Dread Lords." Accessed March 25, 2010.http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/galactic-civilizations-ii/693427p1.html
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