Our latest series comprises what we consider to be “Early Game Structures“, some of the foundational elements visible at the beginning of many great games. As we talked about in the introduction of the topic, the underlying motive of Early Game Structures is building replay value; you’ve got your audience playing, now what can the game do to bring them back next time?
This week we’ll look at decision points; the opportunities for players to make the interesting choices that drive the progression and outcome.
Evaluating Great Decision Points
Over the years we have continued to refine a list of characteristics that can lead to interesting decisions. Our list is made up of four equally valuable traits which will help us address what forms great decisions in games:
- Transparency: The relative importance of a decision is clear to the involved players.
- Energy: Decisions encourage players to act out of interest rather than obligation.
- Metamorphosis: Decision points mirror the progression of the game without telegraphing the outcome.
- Perspective: Evaluation of decision points can change based on situation and experience.
Our Evaluation Scale
These characteristics continue to be revised with application to hundreds of games, but in the interest of practical illustration we’ll use four popular games to identify key differences: Catan, Carcassonne, 7 Wonders and Hanabi. To evaluate these traits qualitatively we’ll use a scale of one to five.
Let’s jump right in.
Transparency: The relative importance of a decision is clear to the involved players.
How often is everyone at the table actually acting with the same understanding? We use rulebooks, player aids, teaching styles and in-game reminders to bring attention to key moments in games, but players still must hurdle distractions and potential for misunderstanding.
Transparency addresses the unfortunate situation where one or more players aren’t in the same frame of mind as other players. Great decisions have a way of emphasizing the level of importance of the choice being made. Routine actions may camouflage situations where your next decision is your most important in the entire game. A lack of transparency in a game may take form in one of the following examples:
- “Can I take my move back?” – One player has the sudden realization that they can’t actually achieve something they’ve been working toward.
- “I think I just won.” – One player makes several subtle moves in sequence while other players take actions as usual, unaware of the looming threat of defeat.
- “Wait, was that the last turn?” – Games like San Juan or Race for the Galaxy have an internal clock that may not be the highest concern to a new player just trying to figure out their next action.
Risk of a lack of Transparency: Strong decision points generate a weak response.
Our first element of great decision points is that everyone can realize which decisions carry the highest importance. If this characteristic isn’t present, the inherent value of decisions can be diminished.
Big decisions should feel more important; it’s one of the best characteristics in other forms of entertainment. Sporting events come down to the final possessions, great stories culminate in large plot developments or final acts and any fireworks show is remembered for its grand finale. The biggest decisions your players make will be the pinnacle of your game design, so let’s make sure they can’t be overlooked.
Risk of a lack of Transparency: Scattered awareness leads to collective disappointment.
Our second element is that the game accomplishes the task of getting all the players on the same page. If a game fails to do these things, it can lead to anti-climactic results; the kind where everyone invested two hours and the game ended under unexpected circumstances leaving few (if any) participants with a great experience.
Think of the last time your buddy Sneaky Sylvester made three moves that suddenly claimed victory. Everyone else was taking turns as usual, planning for the end of the game and now disappointed they didn’t see an opportunity to block the victory. Sneaky Sylvester may even feel they won due to careless error rather than their own actions. This can potentially lead to an ugly downward spiral and an anti-climactic finish.
- Catan: The biggest decision here is almost always drafting your initial board locations which is unfortunate because that may not be obvious the first time you play. The only gauge of how important a decision during the game might be how close your trading partner is to victory.
- 7 Wonders: One great quality here is that the scoring impact of each drafting decision tends to increase as the game progresses. Unfortunately there just isn’t a great indicator from one drafting decision to the next as far as which ones might be the critical ones. If there is, it doesn’t become apparent until you’ve already passed the cards to your neighbor. Until you’ve played the game a few times, it can be difficult to prioritize your own beneficial choices with the need to bury cards helpful to your opponent.
- Hanabi: With a strong teacher it will become clear that your action each turn will typically involve helping someone else. The unclear part is that it it can be difficult to agree on what might be the most helpful action. The most important clue-ing opportunities may only become certain after the game is over, but the shrinking draw deck is a helpful tool to remind player’s of those limited late-game actions.
- Carcassonne: Maximize your score using the only tile you have. The biggest “Should I or Should I Not?” -questions typically involve claiming something, but if you’re considering the decision, you understand it may be an important one.
Energizing: Decisions encourage players to act out of interest rather than obligation.
What percentage of our decisions do we agonize over but actually enjoy? How many times do we just make a decision out of indifference? Decision points are the key moments for players to interact and tell their own story. Asking players to fret over unimportant or weak choices can distract from that story.
Risk of a lack of Energy: Decisions are met with indifference or reluctance.
Our next element of great decisions is ensuring they serve the right purpose. Decision points should more often than not stimulate players and encourage them to buy-in to what is happening in the game. Being able to feel good about your best decisions is something that great games highlight even in the middle of stressful situations.
Players participate in games in order to make decisions but facing too many options with each decision or too many decisions in a game can be exhausting and frustrating. If players repeatedly can’t decide what to do or just starts picking out of irritation, the decision has lost its intended value.
- Hanabi: Nothing generates more hesitation than the risk of screwing up. In this case the risk is exacerbated by incomplete information, social pressure from teammates and the potential for miscommunication. Hanabi can make experienced players uncomfortable in pressure situations and new players fearful of their next turn.
- Catan: Games built around endless opportunities for negotiation and few restrictions can be socially exhausting. If you have a particularly active group of players the initial excitement can often lead to a flurry of trade offers and a taxing number of choices to be made. Alternatively, a very reserved group of players may just lead to weak one-sided trade offers of “I’ll give you 1 Wood if you give me 5 Brick”, the equivalent of player-created false decisions.
- 7 Wonders: The decisions get easier and easier to make each round, as the number of cards decreases. Additionally, almost everything benefits you, so trying to optimize your selection is an enjoyable decision. Occasionally you’ll care little about choosing between a several cards with little to no value, but most decisions are interesting at least for a moment.
- Carcassonne: The straightforward turn structure of Carcassonne has a number of benefits and once again you just have to maximize your personal benefit each turn. The only setback is that periodically you are compelled to place your tile somewhere that offers you no benefit or in a place that only benefits an opponent (a very frustrating experience).
Metamorphosis: Decision points mirror the progression of the game without telegraphing the outcome.
Variety between decisions is just as important as the quantity and importance of those decisions. Games need to feel like they are going somewhere, leading to something. Ideally this is coupled with the idea of keeping players engaged by obscuring the current scoring and rerouting focus to the next stage of the game.
Risk of a lack of Metamorphosis: Routine, stale decisions lead to player apathy.
Even the best designed decision points have a limit to their effectiveness; you can only ask the same person a really great question so many times before they grow tired of it. The last thing we want to do is suck the energy out of the game by adding to its playing time without implementing some variety.
Further Exploration (Progression): Pacing
Risk of a lack of Metamorphosis: Early decisions anoint contenders and bury everyone else.
One of the most troubling situations for new players is being asked to make a big decision early or even before the game begins. The classic example appears in Catan, Terra Mystica and Power Grid; all three ask players to effectively draft a starting position that has a long-term impact on a player’s success.
At best, a decision like this sets up a new player in a serviceable situation. At worst, these decisions can feel like getting pulled into your buddy’s fantasy water polo league. There is nothing worse than being three weeks in and realizing just how bad your draft strategy was and how doomed you are for the rest of the season. Maybe it wasn’t a wise decision to draft players based on the number of syllables in their name, but either way you’ll have to suffer through the rest of the season.
Further Exploration (Runaway Leader Issues & Catch-up Mechanics): Positional Balance
- Catan: As stated above, decisions don’t come with any natural progression as your first choice can so heavily determine your peak potential. Many of the die rolls and trade offers you encounter serve as recurring reminders of your initial decisions, making your overabundance of sheep into everyone else’s least favorite thing to hear about.
- Carcassonne: It’s hard to grade Carcassonne anywhere other than the middle on this category because many decisions do feel similar and there isn’t really anything that makes the 20th tile placed feel any different than the 40th. On the other hand, rarely does someone finish something in the first third of the game that leaves everyone else with a large scoring deficit. Unless you outlaw attempts to steal opponent’s scoring opportunities there is enough variety to keep everyone on their toes.
- Hanabi: One of the greatest strengths of Hanabi is that the situations you find yourself can be so diverse. Some situations require an unusual decision and actually coming across a familiar situation can be exciting; its one of the few reprieves present in the game. The biggest drawback is that the room for error is unkind and some early mistakes can cap your score well below your high expectations. If you’re playing with a crowd that seeks a perfect score, discarding a 5 or both red 3’s can kill the enthusiasm.
- 7 Wonders: Drafting cards is performed in an identical manner many times over the course of the game, but execution is perhaps the only area of repetition. The random distribution of the cards tends to create a natural variety in feel and each of the three eras introduces some diversity among the types of cards players see. Most importantly, 7 Wonders builds a natural progression where early misfortune won’t eliminate a player. Decisions in the third era build on your foundation from previous rounds and put a capstone on the story of a player.
Perspective: Evaluation of decision points can change based on situation and experience.
How does our plan of attack change or evolve each time we revisit a game? Do we arrive at the same conclusions or are there eye-opening moments of realization that rejuvenate the classic choices we face?
Risk of a lack of Perspective: False decisions lead to low replay value.
Great decision points come arise from smart limitations; if we had unlimited turns and resources we wouldn’t need to make strategic decisions. We would just do everything without consequence.
…but great decision points in games don’t just arise come from difficult trade-offs and those agonizingly good fork-in-the-road moments that shape a player’s path forward.
Great decision points can be revisited and enjoyed with renewed interest in future sessions of the game. Otherwise we’re just testing players on their experience level and giving a trophy to players who remember the right answers.
Further Exploration (False Decisions): Internal Balance
Further Exploration (Learning Curve): The Learning Curve
- Carcassonne: The board develops over the course of play so there is usually some strong variety between games. Unfortunately there aren’t deep, multi-layered strategies present in Carcassonne, which isn’t a flaw as much as a byproduct of its elegant simplicity and streamlined rules. A considerable amount of variety in decisions is created by the endless flavors of Carcassonne expansions and stand alone games available that build on a great premise.
- 7 Wonders: A mixture of well balanced options and varying categories of complexity enable 7 Wonders to have a nice learning curve over several games. Among the options available is a basic, vanilla category of cards anyone can pick-up easily (Blue), to a situational category (Red) which may or may not be useful, to a comparatively complex set collection category for scoring (Green).
- Catan: The inherent strength of negotiation games are that the criteria surrounding decisions are imposed by the players. The primary limitation is that two or more players need to find common ground to make a trade. Anything even a remotely distant from that common ground is effectively a false decision for one party or another.
- Hanabi: If you’re fortunate to have a great teacher, the lessons of Hanabi are seemingly endless and advanced techniques continue to be explored. What prevents any action from being solvable is that a theoretically “optimal” choice on your turn is only optimal if the other players react appropriately. The perspective of success in Hanabi is determined entirely by whether or not other players can see the situation through your viewpoint.
This article concludes the first third of our latest series titled “Early Game Structures”, a topic to help emphasize the best characteristics and ideas in great games. Our underlying motive of the each phase of game structures we’re discussing is to support certain characteristics within each:
Early Game Structures: Replay Value
So much of the variety in game play is in part based on the possible outcomes that can be reached from the initial set-up. We are looking the initial excitement and variety that will encourage players to come back next time.
Mid Game Structures: Engagement
Once the initial novelty has worn off, why should players still be interested? On the other side, once players have made the jump over the hurdle of unfamiliarity in a new game, what reinforces the effort that has already been put in. We’ll dive into several topics that help to build the atmosphere and the ability of players to buy-in.
Late Game Structures: Satisfaction
Our opinions of a game are heavily influenced by how a game finishes and whether or not we felt what we did made a difference. We’ll explore several topics that help reinforce the experience created.
To conclude: Replay Value isn’t simply whether a game can be played multiple times with variety, but whether it is worth playing again at all. There are plenty of games whose depth and intrigue appears with repeated plays, but that requires the desire to play again and the willingness of others to join you. This is one of my favorite ideas in game design so I’ll leave you with Filip Wiltgren’s original quote: