Beginner Level: Game analysis: What's a plan?
Let's start this simple: A plan is the squares you think your piece(s) need to occupy, to achieve something good for you in the game. It may be one piece, it may be several pieces, it may contain several steps (like, after achieving these, other possibilities are opened), but it's always this: Where do pieces belong to achieve something.
You can think of a plan like playing with Lego blocks. You take an inventory of what's at your disposal (material, time and space), and start visualizing what can be built with them. Keep in mind that a plan is meant to achieve something good for you, which can be for attack, for defense, or to keep the balance. Is it that simple? Yes... and no.
Playing with a plan –which you should always do–, means you're playing chess and not just pushing wood (or clicking the mouse here and there). But to succeed in chess you also need precision, i.e. the better plan available from the position.
Probably the biggest problems beginners have, when deducing and developing a plan, come from the evaluation of time and piece activity. Let's imagine a player is moving his pieces to checkmate in 3 moves; any opponent's plan based on a checkmate in 4 moves, that doesn't oppose to the former, will fall short. Well, that's time and piece activity. The number of moves (tempos) are the time; the threats are the piece activity. Another problem for beginners is the comprehension that plans aren't static, but dynamic. The opponent may oppose to your ideas (in chess terms, idea is one or several pieces placing, and can be the same as plan), and you may need to modify them to some extent, or completely discard them.
How to discover a good plan.
First of all, an active plan (that creates threats against the opponent's position) needs positional conditions to justify it. These are a combination of opponent's weaknesses (or the possibility to create them), more space, less time to redeploy the forces and forces superiority.
Good plans usually go towards the opponent's weaknesses. If they don't exist, plans are developed to create them in the opponent's camp. At any rate, the opponent's plans and speed (time) to develop his own threats must be taken into account (same as the checkmate in 3 moves example). In other words, any active plan must be checked against the opponent's piece activity.
When our active plan isn't faster nor forceful than the opponent's, then some defensive measures must be taken, opposing not only the rival's threats, but his pieces disposition and evolution, for the time being.
Good plans are about achieving (not wishing) superiority of forces against one (or several) squares at a given moment in the future. Although superiority –generally– means more pieces against a given square (or material inside), it also considers the relative value of the pieces involved. Thus, building pressure with two Rooks and Queen against a point defended by two pawns, ain't superiority... unless trading two heavy pieces for two pawns achieves something.
Back to the plans. If it's an active plan, the squares will likely be inside the opponent's position, most probably against material. A defensive plan works under the same criteria, but inside our position. When no active plan is available, because no conditions exist, and no need to play passive (defensive), plans take the form of maneuvers and small tactical operations, to force defensive measures taking the form of positional concessions from the opponent.
For any of the above to be possible, the key elements are space, mobility, and coordination. While coordination means several pieces working together against specific points, the space and mobility depend –largely– on the pawn structure.
The pawn structures, in chess, work as hills and roads for the pieces (your army and the opponent's). Whether the pawn structures are fixed or mobile, they tend to determine the space, mobility and activity of the pieces. Thus, knowing when to keep or modify the pawn structure, is an immense weapon in the chess player's arsenal, as it can render any plan effective or ineffective.
How to discover a precise plan.
A precise plan considers not only developing threats against the opponent's position, but is also an answer to the position's demands.
In another article, "Reading and Writing", I wrote about this. A precise plan is a looping process between reading and writing from and in the board. This certainly isn't a beginner's concept but –now– you know where to aim to. In simple, you read the position by evaluating material, time, space and piece activity, and write your replies using logic (understanding of the pieces relationships, the position's inner logic), precise calculation, intuition and knowledge.
You get to know you're doing an excellent job –with your plan– when you see an harmonious disposition of forces that is lowering the opponent's piece activity, space, time and material, compared to yours, in the main sector where the battle is taking place, or over the whole board.
This term, harmonious disposition of forces, is used when the least amount of resources is necessary (used) for defense, while most of the forces are active. Resources not only mean material (pieces and pawns), but tempos as well. In chess (although this isn't a beginner's concept either) material, time and space are interchangeable to increase the piece activity, or to deny piece activity to the opponent. That's what happens in tactical combinations; now you know why.
The following game comes from an analysis request in the forums, and was played under rapid time control conditions (10+10). The player with White pieces added his comments to it, and it was interesting because he thought he had a "lead in development" in the opening, meaning there was something he missed to take advantage from it. I kept them to make the annotations resemble a conversation.
To the interesting part. Although yes, White had a "lead", his pieces weren't coordinated against anything in Black's position, nor opposing Black's plans. If someone believes that, just by taking the pieces out of their initial squares, something magical or automatic is supposed to happen... well, it doesn't work that way. The development of pieces must follow a purpose, and even early in the opening players need to have an idea of what that purpose is, while the pawn structures begin to establish.