Tabletop gaming is no stranger to battle themes. There’s Risk, Axis & Allies, Memoir ’44, and Twilight Struggle—just to name a few. Stratego is a game that predates these pillars of the wargame genre and surely played an integral part in the development of gaming on a battlefield.
You might compare Stratego to Chess on a basic level. A 2 player game that employ the goals of conquering your opponent’s pieces, strategically forcing them into a hopeless position, or capturing the objective. For Chess we all know the King as that target, for Stratego we are out to capture the enemy’s flag. Where Chess and Stratego differ is where the fun happens.
Stratego has a war theme with 80 Napoleonic soldiers (40 red vs. 40 blue). The battle takes place on a 10×10 square board with traditional battlefield terrain and two 2×2 lakes in the center. Your army of 40 consists of 12 different styles of pieces. Army members ranging in rank from 2 to 10, bombs, and your flag. Your army’s strength is determined by its rank. For example, the Marshal is the most powerful piece you have and its rank is 10, the General is a 9, Colonels are 8, Majors are 7, Captains are 6, Lieutenants are 5, Sergeants are 4, Miners are 3, and Scouts are 2. The kicker with rank is that the higher it is the less of that piece you have to use. For example, the Marshal is the best piece and you only have 1, as compared to the Scout which is the lowest rank piece but yet you have 8 of them. Generally speaking, in battle a piece is determined to be captured if its rank is lower than the attacking piece—making the game pretty manageable by doing a simple comparison. There are 3 pieces that have special attack/move privileges. The Scout (rank 2) can move as many spaces forward, backward, or sideways as they want. The Miner (rank 3) is able to defuse bombs and remove them from play. The Spy (no rank) is the only piece that can capture the Marshal (rank 10) providing the Spy attacks first, otherwise the Spy is outranked by all other pieces.
The real work is done during the setup phase of the game. Initially each player has time at the start of the game to setup their pieces in a way they feel will give them the best attacking possibilities and prepare them to defend their flag at any moment. The bombs come into play here, once placed a bomb can’t be moved. If a piece attacks a bomb the are removed from play—making the bomb an obvious choice for defending your flag…but also a dead giveaway to where you flag might be hiding. I love a game with consequences. The game board itself also affects the way your pieces are placed. The lakes at the center of the board are natural defenses and can’t be crossed. The edges of the board are also obvious borders and can be used to limit the sides of the flag that you’ll need to defend. With all that being said, placing your flag in the corner, surrounded by bombs is the most obvious move you can do—making it not necessarily the best idea.
Bluffing is huge in Stratego. Lots of trash talking and boasting can really change the course of the game. There’s an element of ego to the game as well, there is nothing more fun for me than to win the game with my flag in the front row and no bomb in sight.
Stratego is one of the first few tabletop games that got me into gaming. Aside from a deck of cards and a Cribbage board, Stratego was the game I was raised on. The setup phase takes time to learn, but the gameplay itself is easily approachable and makes this game a great gateway to other higher level thinking strategic gameplay.