Dodging Dissatisfaction in Game Design

Written by Matt Pavlovich

In our first article of the month, Alex introduced the topic of Satisfaction and concluded that we’re satisfied when games appeal to our senses of power, achievement, and affiliation; working within the constraints of “smart restrictions,” including having games creatively limit our options and end at an appropriate time, tends to provide the greatest satisfaction. The other side of the coin is figuring out what isn’t fun or denies satisfaction. This article looks at some common sources of dissatisfaction and identifies what designers can do to avoid them.

To give a quick idea of what we mean by “dissatisfaction,” let’s turn to a (fortunately) fictional game called Crazy Chase. If you’re unfamiliar, take a look at the Whitest Kids U Know explaining the rules.

The poor kids who got suckered into playing Crazy Chase are clearly dissatisfied with the game, but what does that imply about the game’s design? What do those kids find so dissatisfying?

Topics like fun and teachability can be a bit subjective in the realm of game design and so whenever possible we like to enlist you, the readers, to send us your thoughts and feedback on these topics. Since dissatisfaction is by nature a reflection of preferences of individual gamers, it’s incredibly valuable to include your thoughts with our own. For this article, I conducted an informal survey of our readers and some friends of the blog, trying to capture a broad cross-section of casual to very experienced gamers and fans of Puerto Rico to Tic-Tac-Toe and everything in between.

Player elimination

Monopoly Money

Player elimination is a topic that we haven’t discussed too much at Games Precipice yet, but it’s something that every player has experienced and probably has an opinion on. Player elimination, like the fax machine and the single-wing formation, is one of those things that was ubiquitous enough to never be really questioned for many years until vastly better ways of doing things came along. Until the Euro game renaissance, most board games were either strictly two-player games (like Chess), featured a first-past-the-post moment where one player won and everyone else lost (like Sorry!), or had extensive player elimination (like Monopoly). Somewhere along the way, designers started to incorporate end conditions that allowed all of the players to play the whole game.

Agricola

Of course, getting rid of actual elimination mechanics opens up an entirely new potential problem, what we might call “constructive elimination” or “implicit elimination.” When you have 50 coins on turn 7 of Small World and your opponents each have 80, it can be difficult to envision a path by which you have any chance of winning, even though you are still (technically) playing the game. If the first player to roll in Crazy Chase gets a couple hundred 6’s, that lead might be insurmountable from the very beginning. Personally, I find this constructive elimination effect most frustrating in Agricola. Making a mistake (or being denied the chance to make the “right move”) on turn 2 and suffering for the next 10 turns because of it is miserable. Let’s say the best move on turn 2 is to get stone, but someone gets the stone before you do. Now you’re a turn behind for the rest of the game, which might last three more hours.

What might a player do when stuck in a situation like this? Our reader Alan B. sums it up: “If you have no chance, your options are ‘do nothing’ or ‘hinder an enemy’ or ‘create general chaos,’ all of which generally screw up the dynamic of the game for the rest of the players.”

Coup

To that end, Matt Z. notes that player elimination mechanics can actually be preferable in certain situations, like in games where “you can tell you are going to lose in the first 10 minutes of play, but [that] require you to play another 20 minutes.” For shorter games, especially the “microgames” like Love Letter and Coup that are recently popular, player elimination seems to be making a comeback. The mechanic works in that context (and possibly only in that context) because getting eliminated five minutes in isn’t so bad when the game won’t take more than ten minutes in total.

The best design strategy to avoid having your players flounder around for 90 minutes in a game they can’t even affect the outcome of, let alone win, is to use catch-up mechanics or other positional balancing tools. Josh H. suggests that designers should “provide avenues for continued interaction, [and] correct for disadvantaged players through handicapping.” Successful application of positional balance can actually make the game more fun or memorable; Alan contends that “although it’s frustrating, sometimes the more satisfying games are the ones where you are successfully able to claw back into contention despite bad beats and/or early strategic errors.”

False decisions

Another commonly mentioned source of dissatisfaction related to false decisions and (ostensibly) obvious sequences of moves. Stephanie D. commented that she feels frustrated when she’s playing a game and all of the players except for her seem to have an intuitive sense of the right play. These situations are especially frustrating when they occur at the beginning of games, and picking the optimal move appears to be more of a function of having played the game before than of being able to figure it out by looking at the options. Not being “in on the secret” confers not only an obvious strategic disadvantage of having (inadvertently) made a sub-optimal play but also a psychological disadvantage of getting the sense that you’re not in the same league as the other players.

Puerto Rico

Ryan M. gives a great example. In Puerto Rico, a game that Ryan is a big fan of, he realizes that “you literally have to tell new players exactly what to do during the first round (i.e. Settler/quarry, builder/small market) if you want an even start.” This even start is a big deal because “the lack of the aforementioned ‘catch-up’ mechanisms exacerbate this issue in PR as well.” The issue that Stephanie describes and that Ryan illustrates explains why it’s so intimidating to play chess against anyone who knows the game better than you do, even if playing against someone better than you is the only real way to improve your own skills.

Eliminating false decisions is at the crux of internal balance. A properly balanced game is one where no single decision, strategy, or choice is strictly superior to all of the others to the point that you should select it in any case regardless of the other circumstances. And if the first few moves of the game always play out in a specific order, the game becomes so restrictive that a lot of the freedom gets removed from the game. For example, in worker placement games, if the first thing I should always do is to get more workers, any other option at the start of the game becomes a false decision. Despite its shortcomings in the area of falling behind easily, Agricola mitigates this potential false decision well by requiring more resources (food) for acquiring more workers. You can get more workers in the first few rounds, but if your engine isn’t ready for it, you might run into problems by not being able to feed your family.

Pandemic

If using internal balance methods to iron out false decisions is the “hard” fix for the “opening move” problem, then making the game more approachable is a “soft” method. We’ve talked about this issue before in terms of the Clarity–giving players a concrete and immediate sense of how their actions might affect the outcome of the game–and Navigation–giving players hints as to which actions might make the most sense in a given situation–axioms of approachability. In Pandemic, even if you haven’t thought through a grand strategy prior to your first turn, reducing the burden of disease in cities on the brink of an outbreak at least gives you an immediate goal to achieve as the rest of the strategy is coming together.

Dominion

Using adaptive strategy, where players can craft a line of play on the fly rather than being required to come into the game with a predefined “road map” of how it’s going to play out, can help to reduce dissatisfaction. Being able to adapt a strategy as it’s playing out, rather than having to go down with a sinking ship, is rewarding and satisfying. In Dominion, each new card you add to your deck is an opportunity to incrementally manipulate your strategy, and as Alan points out, “The ability to change which new race to draft in Small World comes to mind” as an example of adaptive strategy.

Variance

Variance and luck are huge topics in game design that we haven’t yet given their deserved attention (but look for an article series later this year). Games run the gamut from the card game War, which is entirely luck-based and involves no skill, to the game of Go, which involves no luck. Many of the most popular and highest-rated games involve some luck and considerably more skill, and imbalanced luck and skill were a frequently mentioned source of dissatisfaction among our readers.

Settlers of Catan

Variance can arise either from luck or randomness (that is, from drawing cards or rolling dice or picking a tile out of a bag) or from a process that we like to call player-driven chaos (which is not random but involves unpredictability from other players’ actions affecting the game state before you can take an action). To Alex C., either of these modes of variance is acceptable as long as the same game doesn’t rely on both of them too extensively: “I’m fine playing Risk (mostly dice rolling) and I’m fine with Avalon (mostly social),” but he’s a lot less rosy toward Settlers of Catan. “I not only need to roll correctly (or have others roll my numbers) but I have to use social interaction to get what I need as well.”

Ascension

Josh agrees. One of his biggest sources of personal dissatisfaction is “excess variance or poorly placed variance,” the worst of which to him is “overly punishing or swingy variance off of a single game event not affecting all players.” He raises a good point: variance in gaming is welcomed sometimes, when it lets the players have different experiences by playing the same game. The key is to let variance give all of the players a new experience simultaneously, not to let a random event decide the winner or doom someone to losing. Flipping power plants off the stack in Power Grid or hearing the Voice of the People in La Citta are random events that let the players experience the game in new ways but affect each player in the same way. On the other hand, a single very powerful card entering the center row in Ascension can swing the outcome of the entire game because only one player might get the chance to acquire it.

Our own Alex Harkey reports a dissatisfaction of his own related to variance, the “inferior goods” problem. In his words, there is nothing more frustrating than the “I can’t do what I want” or “I can’t do anything at all” of a hand of weak cards. This in many ways can be a balance problem: players typically complain when either they’ve been beaten by a strategy or technique they find insurmountable. Far more often players will find themselves in a struggle of ineffectiveness. Bluffing games [like Poker or Sheriff of Nottingham] offer an “out” as do “cards as resources” [games such as San Juan].

Excessive variance is an obvious source of dissatisfaction in Crazy Chase, though it’s such a miserably designed game that variance probably isn’t even the chief complaint–more on that below.

Complexity and overabundance of rules

The next category that got multiple mentions for driving dissatisfaction was complexity, a topic that we’ve devoted plenty of coverage to already. We’re big fans of the concept of the “depth-to-complexity ratio”: a game with a lot of little fiddly rules and mathematical computation like Twilight Struggle should be strategically deep enough to support all of that complexity, while we wouldn’t expect much strategic depth in a game that plays in a few minutes and has only one or two rules like Apples to Apples.

Jacob W. casts the complexity issue not in terms of depth-to-complexity but complexity per time: “I think if a game can balance complexity with length of play time, I can make it fun. Even the most absurdly complex games can be fun if players have enough of a chance to figure everything out before it’s game over. Likewise, mind-numbingly simple games (tic-tac-toe, go fish) can still be fun if they only take a couple minutes to play.”

Rules

Another take on complexity as a source of dissatisfaction comes from Kierston S. She mentions being dissatisfied by “Overly complex games that take multiple games to even be able to play” and “games where you need to flip through a massive book to know what to do next.” Josh agrees that games with “unclear or ill-defined rules” are dissatisfying for him. In addition to player elimination, thick rulebooks seem to be going out of style in all sorts of games, particularly in video games, where most games released in the last five years have displayed all of the necessary instructions and rules on the screen rather than in a manual.

Terra Mystica

Kierston (along with plenty of other gamers) wants to see this trend spread to strategy games: “If developers spent more time/ effort in making the rules easy to understand and better laid out this would help.” She notes that the proliferation of player aids has helped the situation. The idea of simplifying components and currencies (in addition to mechanics) is one we covered in terms of the Parsimony axiom of approachability and for which we praised Terra Mystica, among other games, for functional hybrid player aids/player mats. Terra Mystica is admittedly a notably complex game that does have a dense rulebook and is tough to learn and teach, but once you learn it, the mat/aid is a great tool for remembering how to play and reducing the perceived complexity.

Reducing the number of choices that a player is allowed to make (while still enabling the player to make meaningful and interesting strategic decisions) may give players more satisfaction with the choices they do make. Excessive upkeep or bookkeeping tasks, like checking your population against your food resources and building limits in La Citta add this non-interesting sort of complexity without even the benefit of a reward for accomplishing the task–just a penalty for failing at it.

Often, the only benefit of advancing on the military operations points track in Twilight Struggle is to not get penalized, making it simply a byproduct of a turn. There are very good reasons (both thematically and mechanically) to include the operations track, but in general, if you find players consciously forget to record some information by moving up a track or advancing a pawn somewhere, strongly consider whether that aspect of the game is essential. Another way to make bookkeeping from devolving into the “bad complexity” is by giving players a physical token for doing something, so players will factor this into their move: “Oh yeah, I planned to do that so I can move up this track and take this object.” Finally, if everyone does something equally as often, remove the cost of that item: it doesn’t affect scoring and it shouldn’t be tedious to perform.

Excessive downtime

Bohnanza

The last topic that was particularly popular among our readers was downtime, which was an especially timely suggestion as we recently published an article on that very topic as part of our Dimensions of Games series. Downtime is something that nobody likes but may irritate some players more than others. Josh was particularly bothered by both “overly long set-up or tear-down times” and “long down-times between opportunities to engage the game.” He suggested that games “provide avenues for player interaction through all turns”; perhaps the game that does this the best is Bohnanza, where at least some off-turn interaction is often required to avoid the untimely destruction of your bean fields.

Similarly, Alan is dissatisfied with games where there is an “inability to interact and/or strategize off turn.” He appreciates the simultaneous turns in 7 Wonders that keep the action moving but notes that “Games like Ascension make this tough because the available board changes so much that planning is sometimes difficult.”

Castles of Burgundy

Finally, when the game is finished, players expect a resolution quickly. Anti-climactic victory point scoring at the end of the game can be dissatisfying, especially when the amount of time it takes to score is a significant fraction of the amount of time it takes to play the game. One of the few dissatisfying aspects of 7 Wonders is the pencil-and-paper routine of asking each player how many military points they had, how many wonder points, how many coins, and so on. A great solution is to score during the game; this approach heightens the tension and reduces the amount of time it takes to conclude the game. Aside from “x points per building” bonus tiles (and counting up leftover workers and silver), Castles of Burgundy does an excellent job of dynamic scoring.

Crazy Chase may have its issues with an intense amount of variance, leading to the possibility of player elimination, but the most dissatisfying part of that game must be the downtime for the player who isn’t counting up all of the dice. (It might be a good excuse to take a nap, though.)

Theme: too little, too heavy-handed, or not appropriate

When I wrote about integrating theme and design, I mentioned that one way for games to succeed in terms of theme was to make players feel like they were actually doing what the game told them they were doing: it’s more fun to conquer a vast empire than to accumulate 15 territory points. Daniel N. has a different take, saying that he’s dissatisfied with a game “if it relies on luck and story to drive the fun instead of the mechanics.”

legendsofandor

Part of Daniel’s complaint is one we addressed already in discussing variance as a source of dissatisfaction, but I’m not sure I can sign off on his implication that a game with a great story can’t have great mechanics. (Legends of Andor is a narrative-driven, thematic game that nevertheless had solid enough gameplay to win the Kennerspiel des Jahres.) Daniel adds that, for him, “a game can be fun if it has even a small amount of theme pasted on,” but he “can’t stand abstracts.” A game with not enough attention paid to theme can be as dissatisfying as a game where a thick coat of theme is used to distract the player from shaky mechanics.

The designers of Crazy Chase didn’t even bother to paste on that small amount of theme.

Zugswang

Betrayal

The last example of dissatisfaction that I’ll give is one called “zugswang,” a term that most often shows up in chess and translates as “compulsion to move.” It is a particularly frustrating mechanical dissatisfaction in which one player is forced by the rules to make a move but would be objectively better off not playing. Fortunately, most strategy games don’t write compulsion to move into their rules. Among modern board games, analogies to zugswang can occur in cooperative games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, where you aren’t forced to move or take an action, but by far the best thing you can do to help the team is to pass your turn. Although it’s not true zugswang by chess standards, sitting around and making no move when everyone else gets to play the game isn’t very satisfying.

Aside from simply not requiring players to do anything in particular on their turn, designers can fend off zugswang-like problems by recognizing that sometimes, the best option really is to pass. Though not a strategy game, Dungeons and Dragons deals with this situation well, allowing players to delay their actions until a teammate acts, ready an action to execute if the situation changes, or perform a defensive action to slightly improve their own position while not doing anything else.

Crazy Chase, of course, presents a sort of zugswang in that the best move is not to play it at all.

Conclusion

To wrap up, I’ll mirror Alex’s takeaways from what creates satisfaction in games.

Takeaway #1: Avoid net-negative dissatisfaction.

When one player gets an unlucky roll that makes her a bit worse off, or when someone gets stuck as the unwilling Ledgerman, that player may be a bit dissatisfied. The much worse situations are when the rules are too complicated to understand without constantly referencing the rulebook, everyone has to stop in their tracks for ten minutes to count up points and wipe the board clean before starting a new round, or one player draws the single luckiest card that allows him to win instantly despite having not played a very good game.

Takeaway #2: Dissatisfaction can be derived from a “script” that some players know and others don’t.

Situations where “everyone” knows the right way to play aren’t fun for the people who are in on the secret, because they’re simply going through the motions, but they’re even less fun for people who aren’t in on it, because they may be losing a game they don’t even know they’re playing.

Takeaway #3: Games that overstay their welcome are as dissatisfying as games that kick their players out early.

Actual player elimination isn’t any fun, but it can be excused if the game is very short. Constructive elimination, where you have no chance after 30 minutes of a 2-hour game, is probably even more frustrating. But if your players are complaining that they’re out of things to do and would be better off not taking a turn, then perhaps the game should have ended long ago.

As we’ve consistently found so far, even though there are many pitfalls for players potentially becoming dissatisfied, there are even more great examples of games out there that do it right.

Further Exploration:

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