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The Ultimate Guide To Stratego Strategy

User “Number 4” aka Nick, from Stratego.com posted this fantastic journal on  his Stratego development and his formulation of advanced Stratego strategies. We are grateful that he gave us permission to post it on our website. For more free Stratego information click here.

Stratego Notes

Journal from my experience during 2001-2014

About me

The art of Stratego is to sense for, and find, the right time …

Born between 1985 and 1990 in the Netherlands, I first came into contact with Stratego in 1995, playing with family members as opponents, and loved the game ever since.

As I hardly got beaten by the people I knew in real life, in 2001 I started to look for online play and found Metaforge. Although I got sick of the bastards in the general chat area always trying to upset everyone, I was addicted to the game and ranking. However, after they forced people to pay, I disbanded my account and its rank, and left the scene for a while.

… the right time to switch to, or alternate between, defensive analysis to offensive behavior.

In 2006, I continued on onlinestratego.com, quickly becoming one of the stronger players. However, once Jumbo took over all competing sites, including onlinestratego.com, and launched Stratego.com, I was forced to move and start over. So I did, and quickly rose through the ranks again.

Setups, strategy and play style

… the right time during a ‘trading game’ to switch from preparing your troops on your half for incoming offenses to a (sudden) offensive push on his half; to find the right time to stop trading, infiltrate and get an advantage.

In this journal, I describe my core setup and its evolution, which I have been using since 2001, and I have never even considered changing it drastically ever since; all changes are tweaks.

First of all, I have to mention that there is no such thing as a good setup for everyone. The most important thing above all is that a setup should match its corresponding strategy and play style. Just handing over a setup to someone having a totally different play style, will not help him. Therefore, only with the corresponding play style it can be educative and useful.

That being said, a strong player is adaptive and masters at least multiple play styles, and switches to suit the situation. However, every player, strong or less strong, has a naturally preferred play style.

My play style

… the right time to concentrate and converge, or spread and diverge your attack.

My personal naturally preferred play style is a centralized defensive play style, something rather uncommon among the strongest players, to which I nonetheless belong. It’s a characteristic that is difficult to master, but once mastered will enable you to beat everyone. However, the downside is that, if facing another defensive player, you will be regarded as a passive player and the game may turn stale.

The dilemma you’ll be facing is whether you will stick to the plan, win, and earn some disrespect from your opponent; or show your skills and mastery of fair-play, and switch to a (more) offensive play style. Nearly all games I lost (which are just a few), were the ones where I took the latter approach. Not due to impatience, but due to being respected as a fair player…

Another characteristic of my play style is the essence of timing, as can be seen from several side-notes. I regard timing as crucial to all considerations. Finally, as a control freak, I will always want to be in control, from start to end; and if this behavior gets analyzed soon enough, it may be used against me. I’m prepared for that, and will adjust accordingly.

… the right time to sacrifice and exchange units for information and reconnaissance.

Now you may ask yourself, why stick to a single core setup for over 13 years? Only a few setups suit my centralized play style. A defensive play style relies, more than any other play style, on a good defensive setup. Furthermore, the centralized aspect does not leave much space for major change.

Initial setup and its evolution

… the right time to take some risk.

During 2003 I finally constructed a setup which was in perfect harmony with my play style, and tweaked it until the version I currently have operational. I should note however, that the current version (5) proved to be much better than prior versions: versions 1-4 are only listed for educational purposes on how the final setup was constructed.  Therefore, I will keep strategy descriptions rather short, and will discuss the final setup in much more detail.

N 7 4 4 M 5 4 6 4 2
5 N 2 2 1 6 2 2 8 5
3 3 7 8 N 9 N 7 3 3
2 6 5 N µ N 3 2 6 2

Version 1: August 2003

 

Strategy for version 1: August 2003

I couldn’t find any strategy notes for this setup, only a hand-written version of this setup and a date on it. Only included for completeness.

N 4 7 2 M 6 6 4 N 3
5 N 2 8 1 5 9 2 8 5
3 3 7 4 N 2 2 7 3 4
2 5 6 N µ N 3 2 6 2

Version 2: August 2006

 

Strategy for version 2: August 2006

Keep flanks closed and stale, let the opponent explore. Opening: put the central 9 immediately in front of the Marshall, then the 5 next to it, and if the opponent does not move in the central area even in front of it, followed by shooting the scout: create some inner movement space. Then move the 5 back, and position the next scout (the spotter). Now position the 9 behind the 5, next to Marshall, and wait. Stronger opponents will not suspect the central flag, as it is ‘highly unusual / bad practice’ to place it between the lakes: use this to your advantage. Keep the corners closed, and the center open: opponents will focus on corners.

N 4 7 2 M 6 1 4 N 3
5 N 2 8 6 2 9 2 8 5
3 3 7 4 N 5 2 7 3 4
2 5 6 N µ N 3 6 2 2

Version 3: July 2013

 

Strategy for version 3: July 2013

N 4 7 2 M 6 1 4 N 3
5 N 2 8 6 2 2 9 8 5
3 3 7 6 N 2 5 7 3 4
2 4 5 N µ N 3 6 2 2

Version 4: August 2013

 

Very similar to version 2, but using a more effective spy location and more rapid opening: immediately move 6 in front of Marshall, shoot scout, then follow the version 2 approach. Attempt to fool you opponent in thinking that the spy is your Marshall or general, and always keep a few scouts close in case your opponent is going to do something stupid.

Strategy for version 4: August 2013

Very similar to version 3, but more suitable for high-level (trading) games due to a better layered setup.

N 4 8 2 M 6 1 5 N 3
4 N 7 2 2 2 9 2 8 5
3 3 7 6 N 2 6 7 3 4
2 4 5 N µ N 3 6 5 2

Version 5: September 2013

 

Current version 5 of my initial setup

  1. 9 returned to its version 2-3 spot, because it became essential to my strategy, was required to become trade-proof, the 8 can move out faster in this order of 9-2 (rather than 2-9) and the spy can reach the 8 faster. Also, the left-most 5 behind bombs was replaced by a 4, because it often proved to be vulnerable and got me at a slight disadvantage which may be crucial. Furthermore, the setup is now more layered (trade-proof) than before.

Opening. Open by immediately putting the 6 before Marshall to ‘hide’ it, and move a lot of scouts behind it to scout the opponent center: this creates some inner space (required for fast transitions) and also makes the Marshall look like a bomb: do never move it unless absolutely necessary or having been revealed. As always, move as less units as possible (apart from the scout-line).

Core assumption. “Your opponent’s opening side often has the Marshall very close”. This assumption is derived from the fact that initial attacks with a general are rather stupid and slow. If your opponent opens clearly left (apart from a fake distraction opening), then subtly move the real spy behind the left 8, and if your opponent opens clearly right, vice versa. As long as the Marshal is unrevealed, the 8 is either perfectly safe or will deliver a Marshall to your captured-unit collection. For the rest of the game, play with ‘fake’ spies, and trust this core assumption: it is also key to my play style.

This core assumption also contributes to picking a side for sudden offenses with your general.

… the right time to reveal your higher ranked units, as to threaten your opponent, or to obtain a slight advantage.

Marshall play. If your opponent also opens centralized, do not hesitate to reveal the general very early. The Marshall poses as a fake bomb, by obviously taking effort to move everything around it. Always keep a lieutenant or captain in front of it to keep it un-scout-able.

Now as soon as you think a higher rank (7-M) is coming, make a ‘fake mistake’ with a scout that locks your 6 in front of the Marshall, so it is unable to move away. A lot of opponents will take their chance and try to capture the captain, as they think you just made a mistake by preventing it to run away. Count your moves carefully during this execution, and you will obtain a significant advantage by surprising your opponent the supposed bomb (or low-life) was an unmoved Marshall. This element of surprise is key to the strength of this setup/strategy, and will have an impact on the rest of the game (and on your opponents play style).

Meanwhile, use your general as bait to lure another general/Marshall in close. In case of a Marshall, it often proved to be accompanied by a major or colonel to capture your six, as to hide the real Marshall’s identity. Your own Marshall will always prove to be an element of surprise. It is not unlikely that the opponent Marshall will take his chances and attempt to recapture something (your revealed general?) by swiftly moving past: in that case he will fall into the hands of the spy.

The spotter. The central, back-most scout, should be kept unmoved, as he assumes the role of the sudden spotter, but also as a last defender for your spy. It can also be used for capturing opponent spies, but stronger players will hardly ever make such a mistake. In any case, this ‘spotter’ has proven to be essential to put there. Use surrounding scouts if you need them.

Corner scouts. With this setup/strategy, some scouts are spent early on, to create space. Next, you will need to use another scout so now and then (defense, reconnaissance or fake pressure). However, scouts become especially valuable during the endgame when the board is cleared. Most strong opponents choose to have an unprotected flag, making a scout invaluable, even to the point of deciding who wins and who loses. These corner-scouts are especially set up for that purpose. They are extremely good at deciding and ending games, as they can move very swiftly and efficiently from their positions of the board is cleared well enough. Against the strongest players, these scouts have often been essential.

Bomb structure. First of all, the rightmost bomb is pretty effective during mid-game when opponents attempt surprise with a flank attack, especially if the miner next to it was revealed, or units behind it have moved. If it did not provide you with a nice units, it is a significant speed-breaker and slows incoming units down.

Next, (medium)-experienced players do not suspect a flag between the lakes, as it is considered bad practice and therefore highly unusual. During endgame, it hardly ever is the first spot strong opponents attempt to target, as they assume it is the fake spot, giving you plenty of time to attack yourself. During mid-game, the bombs might even surprise an intruder, and provide you with an advantage (they still will hardly ever suspect it is your real flags location).

You only need one miner, and only half the time.

Finally, in its current structure, the bombs provide a lock-in triangle to the right. In a trading game, it is not uncommon for one party to suddenly stop trading and move past into enemy territory to get the advantage; especially if you are at a slight advantage (colonel vs. major for example). In such a case, capture what you can, and then retreat, and draw him into the left triangle: capture or let him commit suicide: we don’t like lotto J

Weaknesses. Having discussed some key strengths, weaknesses should also be pointed out. First of all, attacks with a general are uncommon (due to their slow-speed and the risk involved), but therefore more deadly than ever.

Another thing that ruins a key element of this strategy is a scout revealing your Marshall before you were able to hide it with the captain. In such a case, I swiftly press towards the opponents’ half of the board, either as a real of fake attack, mainly to analyze the opponents’ response.

Next, full flank attacks to the most-left-back followed by a deep side-sweep are hard (not impossible) to defend, due to the lack of maneuverability and stacked majors. A possible solution is to try to become obvious with your real spy as a fake Marshall, covering your majors and colonel. Hopefully the first one to attempt to capture one is the opponents Marshall, as it is the apparent smartest move. Then again, strong players also have experience with this, and will sometime outweigh their chances after careful analysis. This makes Stratego a wonderful game!

Being dependent on a single core setup introduces problems if you face the same opponent multiple times, especially since this strategy contains several surprises and tricks which will be known by then. Therefore, one will need to have some backup setups that are as different as possible, which also forces you to utilize a totally different play style, for example, rather offensive with an open flag. See the final section for the example I personally use.

Journal cases and notes

Every player has strength and weaknesses. While my strengths are strategy, tactics and patience, I lack the memory-skills.

Therefore, I always play with pen and paper: I draw a 10×5 grid representing the opponents’ half of the board, and marking the lakes in the lowest row. Within the grid, I mark the first 8 moved units (for my core assumption described earlier), I mark all spots that at one point have been empty (to identify bombs) and I attempt to reconstruct his initial setup (for in-game analysis and form assumptions in case I need to take risks).

Over the past 13 years these so called ‘Stratego sheets’, containing 12 or 14 games a page, have formed a whole journal of about 120 pages. On the back of those pages, I sometimes made special notes and/or case studies. I will present several of those notes here.

Journal case – 1: 1 over 1 advantages during mid-game

In a situation where you find yourself 1 major and 1 captain versus opponents 2 captains, or similar but always during mid-game when enough pieces are left, always put the upper rank (major) into the center of his half of the board to limit his maneuverability, and to be able to swiftly anticipate. It also produces a (for you safe) signal of courage.

Journal case – 2: Double corner bomb structures

µ N 4 N
N N

Case 2 – a

 

? ? ? ?
? ?

Case 2

 

Take the following situation, as depicted on the right, where you have high confidence his flag it (by pattern and movement analysis), where you have no real advantage, cannot afford to scout/trade more, and have only 1 miner who is able to make it to this area. Furthermore, you know there are at most 4 bombs, and there are some miners and 1 sergeant alive. Now, if his flag is bombed, there are 4 logical possibilities:

µ N 3 3
N 4

Case 2 – b

 

4 N µ N
N N

Case 2 – c

3 N µ N
4 N

Case 2 – d

 

For cases a, b and c: if you have the time, always walk with your miner from to the complete left straight towards the top unit. In case b, the sergeant (or miner) will start to move, as he will lose otherwise. If not, then walk into the gap at the last moment, between the 2 likely bombs, and clear the backmost, 2nd from left bomb, and finish it with trivial play.

If you don’t have the time (due to a potential miner of him being offensive), take out the right bomb: the left potential flag-position is more likely to be a decoy than the right when using such a bomb structure.

Now for case d: it is pretty deadly using this approach. Therefore, if you have the time, execute the described procedure with the (unknown) sergeant first to threaten him. For this to work better, you should have threatened him earlier to let him know you are prepared to take risks: alternating between threatening, faking and real attacking is essential for mid-game play.

Most of all, by careful analysis of his movement patterns and reconstruction of his initial setup, you can often deduce which is the real flag spot, and you would not have to follow the complete approach.

Furthermore, timing is essential. Choose the right moment to start preparing this approach, as you will have to move a part of your own setup, which limits your own logical flag spots.

3 N µ N
N 4

Case 2 – The smart solution

Finally, the corner-scout will once again prove to be invaluable.

However, strong players often use as unexpected twists as they can think of while maintaining a safe zone. Against the stronger players, you should particularly watch out for the following possibility:

 

Journal case – 3: Single open opponent lane

In case an opponent has 2 out of 3 of his lanes closed off with bombs, you are immediately at a significant advantage: never remove them during initial- or mid-game, as it will only work against him.

For two lanes to be closed off, means just 2 remaining bombs and a likely unprotected hidden flag.

Then, if it seems to be a trading game and you are at a slight (currently indirect) disadvantage (for example, current highest rank is a captain and you are down a sergeant), continue trading until you have seen enough moves pieces (not every setup is fully trade-proof) and both sides have 1 unit of the highest rank left remaining (not the disadvantage rank).

Try to push onto his territory. If successful, it is highly likely you will come out of this better than he does, due to the trade-proof-ness of our setup (limiting the stuff we’ll have to move) and our bomb structure.

Of your opponent does not allow this, the game will essentially be at least stale; as he cannot do anything else. So you can either enforce a draw, or prepare/mount an attack on 1 or 2 of the closed flanks with either fake stuff, or all you’ve got.

Case illustration of the perfect opponent mistake
V V V V V
N V # V N
N V 6 V N
6

Case 3: the perfect mistake

 

I once played a, not so strong, opponent, who made the following mistake fitting into this case. Blue spots contain his units, spots marked with a V have been moved. Now my opponent try to lure me in with the # marked unit (probably a scout) and made the big mistake of moving his 6 to the green spot, to lure me in. Now the best thing to do his not capture the bait, but use it as a burden for him: take a left and make a roundtrip around it, capturing every moved unit until you meet his 6, which will either want to get you out of the way or go lotto at you (which we do not fear). You could even take some chances with only 2 bombs left (only if you are desperate).

? ? ? ?
? ? ? ?
? ? ? ?
? ? ?
6

Case 4

 

Journal case 4: Your own biggest fear

If you were to meet a similar opening as our setup/strategy has, you and up with the situation as depicted to the right, and are left with 4 logical possibilities, listed from bad to better:

  1. Take it with a high but not the highest rank (colonel/general). This is the one of the most stupid things to do: check our own setup J
  2. Take it with one rank higher (thus a major). In an opening case like this, this risk is affordable: the worst thing that could happen is your 7 being captured. However, 1 vs 1 higher rank is maintainable if it occurs during the initial stages.
  3. Take it with the max (Marshall) and take your chances with a potential spy (low chance, but check out the final fun section in this journal ;). You will obtain a medium advantage, but at the severe cost of revealing your own Marshall. This is why our own trick works often against stronger players too: unnecessarily revealing the Marshall is a pretty bad thing to do.
  4. Trade it with a captain of your own, and scout the piece behind it. The most common thing stronger players attempt. Hard to deflect if you also pressure the left side of the lane.

More journal cases may be appended…

 

Fun stuff, but still powerful…

Try swapping the Marshall and the spy against a smart opponent, maintain the same strategy, and suddenly strike on something you expect to be the Marshall:

N 4 8 2 1 6 M 5 N 3
4 N 7 2 2 2 9 2 8 5
3 3 7 6 N 2 6 7 3 4
2 4 5 N µ N 3 6 5 2

 

Now swapping the 9 and 6 may be another effective thing to do, especially if you fool him into thinking you made the lock-in mistake (as described in our strategy).

My personal alternative to the core setup

4 7 9 6 2 M 3 N 4 4
8 1 8 6 2 2 6 5 N 5
7 7 N 6 2 2 5 4 N 2
3 N µ N 2 2 5 3 3 3

Like I mentioned, being dependent on a single core setup makes you vulnerable for rematches, as your tricks only work once. Therefore, I also mentioned using an alternative setup with a totally different play style. That’s why I personally use the alternative setup above, with a fairly simple strategy: it is pretty damn offensive through the center which an opponent who has played against your core setup is not expecting from you. While the left flank is pretty defended and hard to get through, it is possible but slow: often too slow, since you’re very fast through the center. The right flank is also pretty hard to get through, especially since there is nothing worth really much, and your Marshall (and spy?) can easily retreat to defend. When well played, this setup is very effective, particularly after using the core setup/strategy.

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