What Can We Learn From Strategy Games

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 9363 , Published on 08 February 2012

Most of us have spent our best college times addicted to games like the Age of Empires (AoE), building castles and invading villages. The thrill of directing your troops, planning and executing a winning strategy was intoxicating. Sadly, it may not always be possible to live those times over again. But fortunately, one can have the same thrill of strategizing for success in real life, in the corporate world. Come to think of it, in business too one has to manage resources, lead people, defend against competitors and emerge victorious, by grabbing the largest share market share.  In that sense, it would be worthwhile pondering over lessons one could carry forward from those manic days.  In the following passage, I attempt to draw some insights from AoE and try to relate them to the corporate world. Certainly, the list is more indicative than exhaustive.


Choose carefully – well begun is half done

In AoE, one gets to choose the civilization to play with. Each civilization has its own culture, attack weaponry and defences. A wise player will choose the tribe with the best combination suited for the particular terrain. Companies too try and choose the most eligible employees and organizational structures suited to the markets they operate in. While technology companies look for fresh minds and have an open culture, banks demand more restraint (risk-aversion really!) in thought and appearance.

One must not forget however, that a sword is as good as its master. While choosing the best armies is important, one must also bear in mind her skills and experience in handling the troops. How often have we seen mergers and acquisitions fail because the people in charge didn’t know how to handle the resources at hand. One such fairy-tale marriage was between AOL and Time Warner in 2000, the biggest merger in corporate America. In this case, the new Chairman Steve Case, who had his roots in entrepreneurial AOL, found it hard to tackle Time Warner bosses who preferred to run their business as their personal fiefdoms.

Grow fast, grow big

Having chosen the best civilization for yourself, it is important to grow it quickly. That means growing more food, increasing your population, develop your technologies and armies in AoE. Most good players are adept at doing all these things quickly and in the right sequence. One has to traverse the ‘learning curve’ to enhance the tribe’s tools and skill-sets, and do so efficiently.

Grow fast

For businesses too, this path-dependency comes into play. Every company starts small, usually with a single product and a handful of employees. It has to consolidate its core-market share while keep looking for opportunities to grow and diversify. It takes time for companies to generate cash-flow for growth, and for their employees to develop knowledge to expand its product-line and businesses.

Successful companies know how to optimize the process. Let’s take Google and Netscape. While Google was able to start with its search engine, and become a global technology powerhouse with interests in personal mail, media-sharing, social networking and operating systems, Netscape frittered away even though it started big in the web browser business.

Attack when you can

In AoE, one wins by defeating all other players and taking over their lands. A successful player knows that winning requires substantial attack and support reserves, knowledge of the opponent and terrain, stealth and speed. Companies also need to grow their market share by being better than their competitors. Attack weapons include a strong balance sheet, good managers and accurate knowledge of the business landscape.

As in AoE, companies formulate their strategy around superior arsenal - competitive advantages or new offerings - and try and prevent others from a heads-up on their plans. It was Times of India which executed a successful attack in the NCR English daily market in the late 90’s. While Hindustan Times dominated the market, ToI offered a Re.1 newspaper filled with colour and new editions. The competition was caught unawares, and most bled in the subsequent price war. ToI, on the strength of its cash reserves, was able to sustain this strategy longer than others and assumed market leader position.

Defend when you must, and be patient

A good attack is only part of the game. More often, one has to defend her turf against others. In AoE, one needs to protect vital installations such as the town center, and prevent the population from getting abysmally low. At the same time, one needs to generate resources to support the armies engaged in warding off the attack. The battles can be prolonged (in game-time terms), and patience and focus is necessary to sustain oneself.


In the early 90s, Apple faced a similar situation and had to contend with Microsoft and the ever-increasing penetration of Wintel architecture. While more and more computer manufacturers and developers used the Windows OS, Apple was pushed to the fringes. Though sales were quite low, it maintained a legion of loyal followers and a brand for producing sleek machines with cutting edge software and technology. Having survived the onslaught for about a decade, it used its engineering excellence in producing winners like the IPod and IPhone, and has regained its stature as a top technology company.


To sum up, while gamers try and emulate real life while designing games, we all can take much back from games into the real world. The essence of creating a winning strategy remains the same – Have a good start, learn and adapt quickly, don’t hesitate to use your best moves, and never tire of putting up a good fight.

This article has been authored by Dr Yashaswi Barapatre from IIFT Delhi.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


If you are interested in writing articles for us, Submit Here