Battle scene between the Qing Imperial Army and the rebel forces of the Muslim Rebellion in the northwest of China from 1862 to 1877
Board Games Featured

How to be Better at Board Games: The Thirty-Six Stratagems – Chapter I

What does history have to teach us about playing board games? Our How to Be Better at Board Games series aims to find out. First up we're seeing what wisdom we can spin from The 36 Stratagems.

How to Be Better at Board Games is a series set to search through historical sources for any semblance of board game advice. With our tips and strategies, you’ll be guaranteed to wow your board game group in just 2-8 weeks.

My favourite board games rely on playing the other players as much as playing the game. I’ve always preferred the challenge of another player rather than the puzzle of a game system. Eurogames pass the time, but it’s the thrill of matching wits across the table in direct conflict that really gets me excited.

Written as a collection of advice for use in politics, war and civilian life. One source I found suggests the work’s origins lie in either the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.) or the Three Kingdom Period (220-265 AD). While Wikipedia suggests the prevailing view is that the Thirty-Six Stratagems may have originated in both written and oral history, with many different versions compiled by different authors throughout Chinese history. Either way, The Thirty-Six Stratagems gives us a fascinating meditation on deception.

These strategies have been picked up by business ‘thought leaders’ as tips for negotiation or even as advice for approaching a new year. Don’t worry I’m not here to sell you dodgy business platitudes – I’m going to distil some hopefully less dodgy board game advice from these 36 Stratagems.

Now, I’m confident that the original writers weren’t intentionally trying to improve your game of Inis or give handy tips for One Night Ultimate Werewolf. However, there’s enough here that is pretty useful to remember the next time face off with your friends across the cardboard.

Three Kingdoms Romance Board game

Chapter I: Winning Strategies – (Strategies intended to win you wars games)

1) Cross the sea without the emperor’s knowledge
“Mask your real goals, by using the ruse of a fake goal, until the real goal is achieved. Tactically, this is known as an ‘open feint’: in front of everyone, you point west, when your goal is actually in the east.”

Pretty straightforward. Getting an early lead in a game can be dangerous, especially if you telegraph your path to victory. Nothing inspires teamwork in your opponents like a common enemy – you. If you’re playing a strategy game, rally the other players to take down the leader while planning you work towards your own goals.

2) Besiege Wèi to rescue Zhào
“When the enemy is too strong to be attacked directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that he cannot be superior in all things. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead. The idea here is to avoid a head-on battle with a strong enemy, and instead strike at his weakness elsewhere. This will force the strong enemy to retreat in order to support his weakness. Battling against the now tired and low-morale enemy will give a much higher chance of success.”

Holding a friend’s family hostage to win a game of Twilight Imperium, might be considered ‘a bit far’. Alternatively, let them overextend, probe their less defended territories. If players blob their armies this often leaves territories undefended. Exploit a concentration of enemy force by attacking multiple fronts and prioritise the areas most valuable to them. If you can’t find a weakness, just offer to make tea, then fetch the gun and balaclava stashed in your bed.

A Game of Thrones Board Game tabletop photo
This game is dark and full of bastards.

3) Kill with a borrowed knife
“Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one’s own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a third party to do the deed.”

Taking actions against a player can be dangerous – can you persuade another player to do it for you? Avoid outwardly being a bastard. Don’t give others the justification for taking actions against you. If there’s a player that always wins games – inspire a witch hunt against them early. Often a sneaky second place can be the strongest position. Games like Cosmic Encounter are a great example. Often victory depends on being invited as an ally on an attack so you can also claim your 5th colony and share in the victory.

4) Wait at Leisure While the Enemy Labours
“It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way, you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose. The idea is to have your troops well-prepared for battle, in the same time that the enemy is rushing to fight against you. This will give your troops a huge advantage in the upcoming battle, of which you will get to select the time and place.”

Plastic miniatures rarely get tired. You can, however, wear down your opponent’s resources. Use probing attacks or moves to reduce good cards in there hand or force them to over-commit forces to deal with threats you feed them. In the Game of Thrones Board Game keep track of enemy leader cards and strike when their choices are limited. Similar tactics apply in Inis, Battle for Rokugan, Star Wars: Rebellion and so many other games involving area control – make your opponent spend more than they have to.

Inis Board Game
Keeping track what might be of your opponents hands is essential for picking the right time to act in Inis.

5) Loot a Burning House
“When a country is beset by internal conflicts, when disease and famine ravage the population, when corruption and crime are rampant, then it will be unable to deal with an outside threat. This is the time to attack. Keep gathering internal information about an enemy. If the enemy is currently in its weakest state ever, attack it without mercy and totally destroy it to prevent future troubles.”

Now, this is controversial and not always advisable. Attacking the weakest player without mercy might make sense to the cold strategic voice at the back of your brain but it’s also a dick move. Some games even have built-in mechanics to prevent such behaviour. In Cyclades, you cannot take a player’s last territory unless you can prove it would win you the game. Wiping someone out completely is often a good way to lose friends, and I would say that expending effort to completely remove a player is perhaps a waste. Although, the last game of Twilight Imperium I played was won by a player whose home territory I captured then abandoned a turn or two later because I thought it was a bit harsh. So, in summary, don’t be a dick most of the time but sometimes, in hindsight, it’s necessary?

Twilight Imperium 4th Edition Game
Purple is about to win. A few turns earlier, Black controlled their homeworld but retreated. Hindsight is 20/20

6) Make a Sound in the East, then Strike in the West
“In any battle, the element of surprise can provide an overwhelming advantage. Even when face to face with an enemy, surprise can still be employed by attacking where he least expects it. To do this you must create an expectation in the enemy’s mind through the use of a feint. The idea here is to get the enemy to focus his forces in a location, and then attack elsewhere which would be weakly defended.”

This is bread and butter, day one of cunning school – the feint. For maximum effectiveness, this is best employed on every level. Your game banter and reactions should be a facade. Pepper conversation with hints of what you’d like to achieve and what your game plans are. If other players are confident of victory, play the beaten player, let them assume victory is all but assured. Let their arrogance be the rope you hang them with. Strategies like this only really work though if there is a lot of hidden information.

Black Adder Cunning Plan
By now your strategies should have gone from Baldrick to Black Adder on the Cunning Plan scale.

To be continued in Chapter II: Enemy Dealing Stratagems, aka dealing with someone who is openly your opponent.


* THE 36 CHINESE STRATEGIES APPLIED TO NEGOTIATION from John Barkai, Cultural Dimension Interests, the Dance of Negotiation, and Weather Forecasting: A Perspective on Cross-Cultural Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, 8 Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal 403 (2008)

The 36 Stratagems – Wikipedia

Ancient Wisdom For The New Year: The 36 Chinese Stratagems For Psychological Warfare – Forbes

The Cunning Plans of Black Adder

Feature Image: Battle scene between the Qing Imperial Army and the rebel forces of the Muslim Rebellion in the northwest of China from 1862 to 1877

8 comments on “How to be Better at Board Games: The Thirty-Six Stratagems – Chapter I

  1. This is just amazing. What a great idea for a series of articles! Still sound advice as well. Kudos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • George Barker

      Thanks. I’m a pretty average strategy game player, but I found the 36 Stratagems fascinating. I love trying to pull off cunning plans even if they don’t always work. Some of the points feel a bit obvious, but they’re easy to forget in the heat of a game.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree with that – I analyse games mathematically to try and figure out the best moves, or look at strategies, but in the middle of the game I tend to forget everything I know haha. Still, the 36 Stratagems sounds really interesting. They remind me of The Art of War.

        Liked by 1 person

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  4. Are more chapters ever coming?


    • George Barker

      It’s certainly been a while, while try and get the next two chapters out of drafts so I can cover some other sources.


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