CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

The difference between tactics and strategy

TLDR: Good tactics win the day, but a good strategy will see the overall campaign succeed.

As a writer of fantasy, there comes the inevitable time where forces collide and a war breaks out. Soldiers vie for space in close quarters melee, cavalry make sweeps across the battlefield and archers rain down hell from above. The general is either in the thick of of it all, leading from the front, or sitting astride his horse on a conveniently nearby hill, watching as his plans unfold.

But what is the difference between these two words tactics and strategy? When it comes to war, these words are mistakenly often used interchangeably, so let’s pick them apart.

Tactics (noun)—the placement of troops on a battlefield and their orders during combat

The general had to employ very different tactics if he was to take the city.

While the army had won a major victory, the general knew that he could not rely on the same tactics should he meet the same enemy again.

Tactics can often change on the fly. For example, if the general notices that one flank of his army is beginning to deteriorate, he can move his units around to better strengthen that area. Likewise, if he notices that the enemy has a weak spot, he might order his forces to concentrate their arrows or advance to that spot.

Strategy (noun)—a plan of action with a larger, future goal in mind

It was an ambitious strategy—to move from township to township across the country, engaging everyone in their path until they reached the capital city.

While his countrymen considered the wildmen mere barbarians, the general knew their king was as gifted as he when it came to military strategy.

It’s all to do with scale, really. In a campaign, the overall strategy might be to invade a country, lay siege to its capital and overthrow the monarch. But what happens on the battlefield itself each day comes down to tactics—where to put your soldiers, keep the terrain in mind and the weather conditions.

The fluidity that is explained above with regards to tactics isn’t as readily available for strategy, as that would require changing the end goal to some extent. Perhaps the general had hoped to take a shorter route through the mountains in order to reach the capital city, but the defending force has blockaded that route. Despite trying many different tactics, the general might be unable to break through the blockade in order to continue on his way. This might result in a change of strategy—to instead march his forces around the mountains. The plan has now changed. They still mean to head towards the city, but their route is vastly different.

These two words can also be applied to many other things, too. In sport, your coach may have a game plan (tactics) to win the match, so he puts players on the field, makes interchanges and moves people around as necessary. Your overall goal as a team might be to win the league or to get through as many knockout stages as possible. To win each game as it comes is your strategy. In business, a company might acquire smaller companies or invest in hiring certain people to expand their scope of operations (tactics) in order to achieve a greater dominance (strategy) in their arena.

So whether you’re on a battlefield (unlikely), in an office or playing your sport under the blazing sun, there’s still a difference between tactics and strategy.

A Very Short Wedding

Z’ink was a dunmer who had survived the Imperial chop and an attack from Alduin that had decimated the mountain town of Helgen. She was a fearless warrior, though perhaps a little clumsy, who was a master thief and bowman without equal. She was the champion of the weak and the bane of the corrupt, the saviour of prisoners of war and the rescuer of goats — the lattermost title being something of a joke. She was swift as the wind, silent as the stars and as deadly as the cold touch of death himself.

She had stood before the flying wyrms of Skyrim in defiance and had heard the call from the Greybeards. She had climbed the slopes of the Throat of the World, become master of the wind and snow. She had learnt the Words of Power, mastered the Tongue, conversed with dragons and battled the servants of darkness. She had found the ancient Scrolls, travelled through time and survived the time vortex. She had walked into Sovngarde itself, summoned the World-Eater, then defeated him.

But she was a dark elf in a country of Nords being torn apart by a civil war. She was an outsider. Yet, she was determined to break down the barriers of prejudice among the coldest and hardest of Nords. She was resolved to change their minds, to prove to them that they had allies outside their own countrymen, that not every race wished to crush their culture and denounce their gods.

So she gave up her destiny to rid Skyrim of dragons. She turned away from the thieves of Riften. She broke her ties with the Blades in Sky Haven Temple. She rejected the neutral stance of the Greybeards. She left her adopted children in the hands of her house karl. She sharpened her dual swords and restrung her bow. She gathered her enchanted arrows and filled her pack with soul gems. Then she sent a message to Ralof of Riverwood and, together, they walked through the great gates of Windhelm.

She met with Jarl Ulfric and pledged her weapons to his cause, to give back Skyrim to the Nords. She spoke the oath to obey and honour the Jarl, to the true High King. She promised to serve and protect her brothers and sisters, ‘til death and beyond. She followed Ulfric’s orders to the letter and, despite her race, he began to trust her with his military secrets. She rose through the ranks of the Stormcloaks, from Unblooded to Stormblade, aiding her Shield-Siblings in the mountains, in the forests, amidst the tundra and in the cities. The citizens of Windhelm knew her name and sang songs of their victories in the taverns.
And among those who sang was Angrenor, so-called Once-Honored.

A veteran of the rebellion against the Imperial rule over Skyrim, Angrenor had fallen from his proud place among the Stormcloaks to a mere beggar on the streets. During a fierce fight, he had suffered a cowardly strike to the back from an Imperial soldier and been left for dead. Unable to continue the struggle after his wound had recovered, he had moved from profession to profession, but had been turned away from all. On the streets, he had seen men from Cyrodiil, elves and even argonians working in his stead and his frustration had turned to anger at these outsiders, and he blamed them for his woes.

Yet not her—not the Dovahkiin, the Stormblade. Outsider though she was, she was fighting the war he could not and had proven her loyalty time and time again. When she was visiting the city, she spent her nights in the tavern, telling all who cared to listen of her adventures in the snow. She spoke of distant islands surrounded by sheets of ice where wraiths walked. She told of the kingdoms underground, deserted and overgrown with glowing mushrooms as large as trees. She spoke of dragons and Sovngarde, of the Nords of old and how Alduin had been banished for eternity. And night by night, he would stand at the back and listen in awe, equally hoping and dreading that this elf, who defied all his beliefs, would notice him.
And one day, she did.

It was his voice, she told him later, that first attracted her—not the stories of his days as a rebel or the numerous scars that crisscrossed his skin. She could listen to him for hours, she said, just like he could listen to her. They would walk the city streets together in the brief moments she was stationed in Windhelm and not bound to Ulfric’s side. He would pick her flowers, and she would laugh and tell him of their medicinal properties. She visited the city more and more, and he hoped it was because of him.

Before he realised what he was doing, he was looking at rings in the local marketplace, jewels that he could never afford but dreamt of buying her. Sadness gripped him now, for surely the Stormblade would never wish to bind herself to him, for what could he contribute? He was an injured veteran—his youth was behind him, while she was in her prime. He had no home and owned nothing but the ragged clothes on his back and a handful of coins that he spent on bread to fill his belly and ale to drown his sorrows.

And yet, despite his woes, it was her who approached him. She had enough money for both of them, she said, and had bought Hjerim house, so he could have a place to call home. He could buy himself new clothes, he would never again know hunger, he could regain his pride and walk the city streets with his head held high. She had spoken with the priests in the Temple of Mara in Riften, they were happy to perform the ceremony, if he was willing to stand beside her and take the vows. He was willing.

The Temple of Mara was full that morning. The light shining through the stained glass window fell upon Zin’k as she stood at the altar in her Stormblade robes, proud and nervous. Her friends had come from near and far and her two adopted children stood anxiously beside her. The call came up from the man at the door, the groom had arrived! It was time. The crowd inside were hushed and the bard began her song as the doors opened. Gasps.

Angrenor the Once-Honored had not bought himself a new suit, as she had expected. She had given him the money, so Talos only knew what he had done with it. His feet bare, his face still dirty, he walked up the aisle and took his place beside her and smiled. She raised her eyebrows. The ceremony went on, as though this had been expected of him, but the Dovahkiin kept glancing at her husband-to-be, wondering whether this was some sort of joke.

The priestess proclaimed them to be married and the rings were exchanged. Zin’k leant forward to shake the priestess’ hand, but when she turned back, Angrenor was gone. She looked around in bewilderment. He had left the temple early!

‘Hey, is this another bug? What’s going on?’

This moment made me laugh the first time one of my characters got married in Skyrim, and made me wonder why the devs had not spent a little bit more time working on the ‘romance’ aspect of the game. With hundreds of thousands of gold, the Dovahkin would undoubtedly have given her homeless husband-to-be some money to buy some proper clothes, so the fact he turned up in rags to the wedding was just hysterical.

A Future for the Krogan

The maw hammers tolled in unison, sending shockwaves and a low hum through the ground. Commander Shepard could feel the earth trembling with each hammer fall and peered out from behind a ruined pillar. The bug-like Reaper was still circling the Shroud, protecting the distribution of its poison into the atmosphere. Its red eye scanned for the source of the disturbance, the ground shaking with each step. Its pincer-like legs brushed aside the crumbling Krogan architecture like dead leaves and, at a shout from Garrus, Shepard threw himself out from behind the pillar and rolled to cover as one of the Reaper’s legs hit the pillar and sent it toppling to the ground.

‘Commander!’ Javik shouted, pointing out towards the wasteland. ‘Look!’

Shepard slid into cover beside the prothean soldier and looked, but the dust rising from each of the Reaper’s steps had veiled the surrounding landscape around the base of the Shroud.

‘What is it?’

But his question was soon answered. There was another tremor, but this time not from the hammers or from the Reaper. This was a long, sustained rumbling that was progressively growing stronger by the second. Loose rocks and bits of debris all around them were shuddering, and whatever Javik had spotted had clearly also drawn the Reaper’s attention.

The ancient machine uttered its soul-shattering war cry, a low blast of terrifying sound, and manoeuvred its body to face the oncoming threat. There was an explosion of earth and the mother of all thresher maws, Kalros, burst from the ground, its pincers wide, its savage jaws open and angry. The Reaper fired but the thresher maw collided with its metallic shape and clung on tight, sending the Reaper’s laser firing perilously close to Shepard’s position.
‘Move! Move!’ he shouted.

The red beam sliced through a raised walkway, then the huge shape of Kalros’ body came crushing down, decimating what once may have been a road. The team leapt across a ruined bridge and scrambled up the opposite side of a narrow ditch as the two leviathan shapes battled above them. The Reaper’s war cry blasted angrily as it tried to shift the hold of its long centipede-like attacker but Kalros held it tight. Struggling, the Reaper shook itself violently and swung the thresher maw hard against the Shroud itself. Kalros released a piercing cry and its hold on the metal bug slackened. Its tentacles retracting in pain, the giant monster retreated back underground.

No! Shepard thought, despairing.

They had worked so hard to get the hammers working, summoning the giant legend to help them against the Reaper. Now the ancient machine was repositioning itself defiantly in front of the Shroud once more, its red eye searching from side to side for any further sign of trouble.

‘What now?’ Garrus asked. ‘We can’t get to the Shroud with that thing still there.’

‘Wrex,’ Shepard said into the comms, ‘is there another way to the Shroud from our position?’

‘At the end of the—’

The earth shuddered dramatically once more and Shepard, Javik and Garrus all lost their footing. Shepard spun around and looked in the direction of the Shroud to see Kalros rearing out of a new explosion of dust and debris, its bloodied tentacles fiercely lunging towards the Reaper once more. Caught by surprise, the Reaper crumbled under the weight of the thresher maw and its steady hold on the ruined city was gone. Its laser fired once, twice, three times, but the shots all missed its attacker. Kalros spun its huge body around the downed machine, twisting and crushing it like a snake, its smaller legs holding the monstrous metal body secure. Explosions erupted across the Reaper’s body and red lightning flickered outwards from its laser-like eye as Kalros squeezed it and dragged it under the ground.

‘Good enough for you, Shepard?’ Wrex’s voice broke through the comms, followed by a laugh.

‘It’ll do!’ Shepard replied. ‘Okay, Javik, Garrus—get back to the truck, I’ll take care of the cure! Go!’

The turian hesitated, but then nodded and hurried off towards the raised skyway with Javik. Shepard turned towards the Shroud, which was still emitting its poison into the atmosphere, took a deep breath and broke into a run.

When he reached the control centre at the base of the tower, Mordin was already there, furiously typing on a terminal. Above them, small explosions were breaking out across the Shroud’s exterior.

‘Mordin, is the cure ready?’ Shepard asked.

The salarian glanced towards him, but then returned his gaze to the terminal.

‘Yes. Loaded for dispersal in two minutes. Procedure traumatic for Eve, but not lethal. Maelon’s research invaluable.’

‘She’s okay?’

‘Heading to safety now. Her survival fortunate. Will stabilise new government should Wrex get any ideas. Good match, promising future for krogan.’

There was a great boom from above and a piece of the damaged Shroud came toppling down close to the terminal. Shepard shouted in surprise and alarm, and looked up at the tower. It did not have long.

‘Control room at top of Shroud tower. Must take elevator up,’ Mordin said, barely flinching.

‘You’re going up there?’

‘Yes, manual access required. Have to counteract STG sabotage. Ensure cure dispersed properly.’

‘Mordin, this whole thing is coming apart!’ Shepard argued. ‘There’s got to be another way!’

‘Remote bypass impossible,’ Mordin said, looking up at the tower. ‘STG countermeasures in place. No time to adjust cure for temperature variance.’ He paused and his large eyes looked back at Shepard. ‘No. No other option. Not coming back. Suggest you get clear. Explosions likely to be problematic.’

The salarian strode over towards the lift.

‘Mordin, no!’ Shepard cried, going after him.

‘Shepard, please. Need to do this,’ the scientist said, turning back. ‘My project. My work. My cure. My responsibility.’ He closed his eyes and sighed, somehow managing a smile. ‘Would have liked to have run tests on the seashells.’

Shepard shook his head, but did not try to convince his friend any further. He knew Mordin well enough to realise that his mind was set.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said instead.

‘I’m not,’ Mordin said. ‘Had to be me.’ He turned and engaged the lift. The screen came down, and the salarian turned back to look at Shepard once last time. ‘Someone else might have got it wrong.’

The lift began to rise and Shepard watched it go until his friend was out of sight.

‘Warning: temperature malfunction detected. Warning: temperature malfunction detected,’ said the control centre’s VI.

Glancing back, he saw the lift reach the top of the tower. He began to run. As he leapt over the debris and ran as fast as he could back to the skyway, he heard Mordin’s voice through the comms.

‘Ah, classic bypass. Standard failsafes. Excellent work. Yes, yes.’

Shepard began to hear humming and then, as the signal began to break up, words of the scientist’s song.

‘I’ve studied species turian, asari and batarian…’

‘Temperature now in acceptable range,’ said the VI.

He ran on, his eyes clouding with tears. He could see the skyway up ahead and a convoy of trucks. Garrus and Javik were there, waiting for him.

‘Dispersal commencing.’

Shepard looked up and saw a mist with a yellowish hue now spreading out from the top of the spire, replacing the Reaper’s poison. It spread quickly and wide across the sky.

‘Genophage cured, krogan free. New beginning… for all of us,’ Mordin said.

Shepard felt the earth tremble as he continued to run. More explosions began to dot the exterior of the Shroud. Up ahead, he could see Wrex getting out of one of the trucks.

‘My xenoscience studies range from urban to agrarian…’ the scientist sang to himself. ‘I am the very model of—’

An explosion ripped through the control room at the top of the tower and the comms signal went dead. Shepard ground to a halt and looked back. The top of the Shroud was aflame. The cure was still defiantly spreading across the sky even as the tower disintegrated.

Farewell, Mordin.

Particles began to fall around him as the cure was dispersed. It was like snow. He reached out and a piece fell into the palm of hand and disappeared. Behind him, he heard cheering—the krogan celebrating their freedom, their hope and their new beginning. The cure that the salarians had manufactured and the turians had helped to disperse many years before was now no more—and both turians and salarians had given their lives to make it happen.

The Mass Effect trilogy is, hands down, my favourite suite of games. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, the story, of course. The progression from a simple military commander on a semi-routine mission to literally gathering whole races of galactic species together to face a civilisation-ending threat is amazing, captivating and inspiring. Secondly, the combat. I’m not a huge fan of shoot ’em ups, so the fact that I actually enjoy the combat systems in this game is quite a feat. The way you can weave shooting together with biotics and tech skills means each fight isn’t just a mindless jaunt down a corridor, shooting and throwing grenades. Your team works together, their skills complementing yours, and when you pull off a biotic combo and see your enemies dramatically expode mid-air, there’s nothing more satifsying, in my view. The final reason is the characters. I will unashamedly admit that playing Mass Effect feels like hanging out with friends. (I do actually have real friends, by the way, so don’t say that’s sad!) The characters are so deeply crafted, they have their own individual mannerisms, they make jokes, they’re sometimes hard to strike up a conversation with, they’re tragic, they’re annoying and they’re your bros—just like with real people.

But what about this scene in particular?

One of the best things about the story of Mass Effect is how you can craft it. Yes, you’ll always be facing down Reapers at the end—nothing you can do can change that—but how you get there is extremely important. Moral choices are peppered through each mission: Do you kill this person because they’re blocking your way, or do you let them live and take the long route? Do you try to convince your friend not to punch someone in the face, or do you egg them on? Do you allow your buddy Mordin Solus to sacrifice himself to save an entire species or do you convince him to pretend he’s released the cure, save his life, and then risk your fragile alliance with the krogan? There are many choices in the series that leave me paralysed, but this one was different. The answer was obvious—cure the krogan. And that meant saying goodbye to one of my favourite companions, but I console myself with the knowledge that Mordin would have wanted to go out this way. Sniff.

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