How Stratego Works


The full Stratego board from a vintage 1970 set, with foil-stamped game pieces.
The full Stratego board from a vintage 1970 set, with foil-stamped game pieces.
Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks 2012

A spy is trapped behind enemy lines. Enemy forces close in as he sneaks up on a marshal, the most powerful member of his opponent's arsenal, and attempts a game-changing capture. Will this secret mission turn the tides or will this spy make the ultimate sacrifice?

Although the stakes are high, luckily this war is being played out on a 10-by-10 game board. Stratego, as the name suggests, is a game that relies heavily on strategically moving the game pieces that comprise your army as you attempt to capture your enemy's flag and win the game, while simultaneously protecting your own flag. Designed for two players of ages 8 and older, Stratego takes about an hour to play.

While the objective of the game seems straightforward, it's not as easy as simply moving game pieces around the board in hopes of coincidentally conquering enemy territory and happening upon a flag. Every attack is a risk because the ranks of your opponents' game pieces are hidden from your view. This means that you won't know ahead of time whether your piece will be outranked, become a prisoner of war and be removed from the board. However, each attack -- whether it's successful or not -- will reveal the rank of the opposing piece, and you'd do well to remember these ranks as you pit your game pieces against them in the future. Whatever your strategy, rest assured that you'll have the chance to test it again and again as you match wits with Stratego opponents.

Stratego first debuted in the United States in the 1960s (we'll take a more in-depth look at the game's history in a later section), and it's a game with staying power: nostalgia for those who grew up playing it and a new challenge to those who've only begun.

Stratego's even made the move from family game night to international competition with tournaments including the Stratego World Championships, which draws game enthusiasts from around the globe [source: International Stratego Federation]. The board game is being used in surprisingly inventive ways, too. Playing Stratego has been shown to help children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a central nervous system dysfunction that makes it difficult to process sequences or systems, develop critical thinking skills and learn deductive reasoning -- all while going after the enemy's flag [source: Smith].

History of Stratego

Stratego's design aesthetic has changes since this Milton Bradley set was printed in 1970, but much of the gameplay has remained the same for decades.
Stratego's design aesthetic has changes since this Milton Bradley set was printed in 1970, but much of the gameplay has remained the same for decades.
Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks 2012

Stratego's early history was one that spanned multiple continents: the game has many similarities to a French game from the early 1900s. The French patent for an unnamed battlefield game with two opposing armies was filed in 1908 by the game's creator, Hermance Edan. By 1910, a game fitting the same description was being sold by a French game manufacturer as L'Attaque, and included French and British army game pieces [source: Collins]. By the 1920s, L'Attaque was being sold in Great Britain by London-based H.P. Gibsons and Sons [source: Gibsons Games].

Although there has been some dispute about whether L'Attaque inspired Stratego, court papers filed in a 2005 licensing dispute between Hasbro and the inventor of a similar game called Strategy name Jacques Johan Mogendorff as the man who created Stratego at an unspecified time before 1942. By 1943, Mogendorff's family had been confined to a concentration camp in the Netherlands and in 1944 they were moved to a concentration camp in Germany before being freed in 1945.

Mogendorff licensed Stratego to Smeets and Schippers, a Dutch company, in 1946. Then, in 1958, he licensed the game to Hausemann and Hotte for European distribution, and again in 1959 for global distribution. In 1961, the same year that Mogendorff died, Hausemann and Hotte purchased the copyright and U.S. trademark from Mogendorff's heirs and subleased the license to Milton Bradley (which in 1984 became part of the Hasbro corporation) so that the company could manufacture and sell the game in the United States. Later, Milton Bradley also registered a number of copyrights, but these covered ancillary items like the game board and directions.

According to court documents filed in the 2005 lawsuit, Stratego infringed the copyright for Strategy, but the lawsuit was later dismissed. As of the date of dismissal, Hasbro had reportedly sold more than 10 million copies of the game in the United States, and paid more than $5 million in royalties to Hausemann and Hotte [source: Estate of Gunter Sigmund Elkan v. Hasbro].

Stratego Setup

Before you can become a Stratego master, you'll need to master the rank and file members of your army. As you unpack the game, you'll notice 40 red army pieces and 40 blue army pieces, as well as a game board and, in modern versions, a fortress screen.

Each army has seven pieces -- six bombs and one flag -- that do not move after their initial placement on the board. In addition, each army has 33 pieces that can move from place to place on the board, and these can be used to attack opposing pieces. Each piece is marked with a number rank; the higher the number, the more powerful the rank (except in older or nostalgia copies, as discussed in the sidebar above) -- though the three lowest-ranked types of pieces have special abilities. There are [source: Hasbro]:

  • 1 marshal, rank of 10
  • 1 general, rank of 9
  • 2 colonels, rank of 8
  • 3 majors, rank of 7
  • 4 captains, rank of 6
  • 4 lieutenants, rank of 5
  • 4 sergeants, rank of 4
  • 5 miners, rank of 3
  • 8 scouts, rank of 2
  • 1 spy, rank of S

Before you and your opponent can set up the game, however, you must decide who will be the mastermind behind which army. To do this, hide a red piece in one hand and a blue piece in the other, and have your opponent choose a hand. The color in the hand he picks will be the color of his army for the game; you'll have the remaining color. (It matters because the red army gets to go first.)

Set the game board between you, with the word Stratego facing each player. You'll want to take turns setting up, or place a solid screen in the middle of the board -- some versions of the game come with the aforementioned fortress screen for that purpose. Only one piece can be on a square at a time and initially, your pieces can only be placed in the four rows of the game board that are closest to you. (We'll explore the strategies of game piece placement in the next section.)

After both armies have been placed on the board, take down any screen you were using and prepare for the red army's first move. Players then take turns, keeping in mind that every turn has to include one of two actions -- moving one of your pieces into an adjacent open space or attacking one of your opponent's pieces that sits in an adjacent space. However, you cannot both move and attack in a single turn (with one exception we'll go into on the next page), and diagonal moves aren't allowed in either case.

Stratego Gameplay

The spy may be the lowest-ranking piece in the game, but he's the only one that can remove a marshal (short of hoping said marshal will stumble into a bomb.)
The spy may be the lowest-ranking piece in the game, but he's the only one that can remove a marshal (short of hoping said marshal will stumble into a bomb.)
Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks 2012

As war breaks out on your Stratego board, it's time to go on the offensive. Keep in mind that only one piece can be moved during your turn, so you'll want to expend a fair amount of forethought before you make each move.

To put your game piece in an attack position, move it to a space right next to an opposing game piece. A game piece can't jump over another piece, and it can't jump over or go through the lakes in the middle of the board, so moving into an attack position may take multiple turns to accomplish. The only time a game piece can muscle its way into an already occupied space is when it's attacking an opponent. Give your opponent's game piece a solid tap and prepare yourself for the outcome. You and your opponent must reveal the rank of your game pieces and if your piece is bested, it will be wiped off the board. But if it's triumphant, it will advance into your opponent's space and you'll remove your opponent's piece. If the pieces are the same rank, both are taken off the board.

There are a few exceptions to the movement and rank rules, though. Scouts, miners and spies each have special freedoms.

Scouts can move any number of open spaces in a single direction and can also make an attack during a single turn. Although scouts, with a rank of 2, can only take down spies, they're valuable for strategic strikes -- either by potentially sacrificing the scout to reveal one of your opponent's pieces or by making a swift, multi-space move to take out a low-ranking threat -- or to grab an unprotected flag.

Miners are valuable because they can disarm your opponent's bombs and remove them from the board; when a miner disarms a bomb, it moves to occupy the bomb's previous space on the board. Every other game piece, however, will suffer a deadly explosion if it encounters an opponent's bomb.

The spy is particularly lethal -- as long as it can evade capture. Unfortunately, becoming a prisoner of war is a very real risk for the spy because every other ranked piece on the board can capture it. However, it's the only piece that can attack and capture the top-ranked marshal -- provided that the spy is the attacker. It will be captured if a marshal attacks it.

Stratego Tips and Strategies

The bombs and flags cannot be moved once the game begins, so take special care with their placement.
The bombs and flags cannot be moved once the game begins, so take special care with their placement.
Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks 2012

Take care when you place your pieces initially, as the early game strategies you employ could determine the outcome of the game. You'll want a mix of scouts and powerful pieces in the front rows, closest to the enemy army. Because of their low rank, you can sacrifice scouts as you figure out where your opponent's high-ranking pieces are located. And, by placing powerfully ranked pieces on the front row, you can capture enemy scouts as they breach your territory. Don't, however, send these better-ranking pieces into enemy territory in the beginning of the game; you won't know what they're up against and you'll risk them getting captured or blown up by a bomb.

Beware of bomb placement. You may spend plenty of time considering how your bombs can best affect your enemy, but it's important to remember that they could trap your own troops. Game pieces aren't allowed to jump over other pieces, and if yours don't have room to go around a bomb, they'll be stuck.

Your spy is weak because of its rank, but still valuable because it can take out a marshal. Protect your spy by using a general as a bodyguard. The general's rank is powerful enough to protect your spy by defeating other members of your opponent's army -- except the marshal. But if the marshal does capture your general, you can simply take the marshal out with your spy.

As the game progresses, watch the movements of your opponent's army pieces. How and where they move is a great tip-off as to their rank (scouts move multiple spaces during a single turn, and bombs and flags never move). As you notice these movements, be sure to remember any ranks that are revealed during attacks. You can use this information to make strategic decisions about where and how to attack [source: Hasbro].

Need a great way to bluff your opponent? Group three of your bombs away from your flag; your opponent will assume they're guarding the prize. Or you could leave a mid-ranked piece still among a group of bombs -- if you never move it, your opponent might assume it's a bomb or your flag, and be surprised when it captures their attacking piece. You can also bluff by playing aggressively, chasing down an opponent even if the game piece you're using could easily be taken because of its low rank.

Variations on Stratego

Ready to make Stratego even more challenging? Try a few variations on the traditional board game.

Radio silence: When one player attacks another, only the attacker says the rank of his piece out loud. This makes it more challenging, because during traditional play, attacking -- and sometimes sacrificing a piece -- can reveal an opponent's rank. So how will you know whether you've captured the piece? If you were outranked, or if you attack a bomb, the opponent will remove your game piece. Otherwise, the defender has the option remove any piece with a lower number than his piece from the board and continue to keep the attacked piece's rank a secret. However, when attacked by a scout, the defender must reveal the piece's rank. This variant requires a high degree of trust between players.

Unequal outcome: During traditional play, when pieces of the same rank battle they are both removed from the board. This variation, however, contends that when equally ranked, the attacker may stay on the board. Only the defender is removed.

Search and rescue: Another variation is to allow the rescue captured game pieces. If you're able to successfully maneuver one of your pieces to an opponent's back row on the game board, you can release one of your captured pieces and return it to the board -- placing it on your home turf in any open space. There are a few exceptions, though. Scouts can't rescue other pieces. Once captured, bombs stay captured, no matter what. There's a limit of two rescues per player, and the same piece can't make more than one rescue [source: Hasbro].

Another variation is to take the battle virtual. The first licensed "Stratego" video game debuted in 1990, and today there are versions of Stratego for iPhone and Android, as well as variations for the Wii, DS and XBox that allow solo and multiplayer combat [sources: Blanco; McCloud]. Similar, but unofficial, apps are available, too. For example, "The General," which is available for iPhone and iPad, has a Stratego-like format, though as of early 2012, only the official "Stratego" app will let you match wits against a human opponent instead of the computer.

Author's Note

I have such fond memories of playing Stratego with my cousins at my aunt and uncle's house. Naturally, I couldn't wait to break out a copy of the game when I realized its inner workings were to become my next, however brief, obsession. I have to admit, though, that my first few attempts to play were a bit frustrating (or perhaps I should say "annihilating"). It probably would have been a good idea to read the rule book before jumping right in. Before long, I got the hang of it, and probably bettered my childhood scores. At least I hope so.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Blanco, Sebastian. "App Reviews: Stratego vs. The General." Feb. 6, 2011. (March 6, 2012) http://www.tuaw.com/2011/02/06/app-reviews-stratego-vs-the-general/
  • Board Game Geek. "Gibsons Games." (March 5, 2012) http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgamepublisher/103/gibsons-games
  • Board Game Geek. "L'Attaque." (March 5, 2012) http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/9246/lattaque
  • Collins, Ed. "Tips and Strategies for Stratego." (March 7, 2012) Ed Collins. http://www.edcollins.com/stratego/stratego-tips.htm
  • Find a Case. "Estate of Gunter Sigmund Elkan v. Hasbro." Nov. 18, 2005. (March 6, 2012) http://or.findacase.com/research/wfrmDocViewer.aspx/xq/fac.20051118_0000180.DOR.htm/qx
  • Hasbro. "Stratego Instructions." (March 7, 2012) http://www.hasbro.com/common/instruct/Stratego.PDF
  • International Stratego Federation. "Dutch Players Rule Stratego World Championships 2010." (March 7, 2012) http://www.isfstratego.com/
  • McCloud, Ken. "Stratego (The Computer Game)." (March 6, 2012) http://homepage.mac.com/thecloud/stratego.html
  • Smith, Sally. "What do Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities, ADHD and Related Disorders Deal With." (March 7, 2012) http://www.ldanatl.org/aboutld/parents/help/parents.asp