Non-decisions

One of the most discussed difference between hobby board games and mass market is decisions. When in Monopoly you roll a die to see where you go, in Tokaido you just… choose where you go. That choice is, really, what modern games are about, where strategy and tactics and story and interaction come from. Recently, I’ve been testing a lot of less-than-polished games from other new designers, and I’ve seen two types of non-decisions: they look like decision, but really aren’t.

I’ve played a lot of prototypes that were spinoffs of the card game War. Imagine a game where you had a handful of monster cards, and played them against one another in duels. One player would play one, and the other would respond, highest number gains a point, discard the cards, go again. This would be a crappy game, and a perfect example of both types of non-decisions: the first player had an arbitrary decision, and the second, an automatic decision.

An arbitrary decision is one where you have insufficient information to make a decision. Not incomplete information -that is actually interesting-, but insufficient to push you one way or the other. If I knew what my opponent had in hand, then I could try and strategize which monsters I’d force them to play, opening things up for the following duel. If the monsters had specific abilities outside of the duel, I could base my choice on those abilities. If the prize differed from one duel to the next, I could choose when to go all in and when to play it safe. But as is, no information means my decision is based on… nothing at all. And therefore, a non-decision.

An automatic decision is the opposite. It’s not only perfect information on the situation, but also clear, directly comparable result. If you play a 6, do I have a card of higher value? Then, I play the lowest one that is still higher. If not, I play my lowest card. That’s it: sure, I can play my 10 on a 3, but that’s just sub optimal.

And you might think “of course, that’s a crappy example of a game just to make your point”, but really, (1) I’ve played games that are pretty close to that, and (2) you’ve played a few prototypes, and probably even a few published games, that rely on non-decisions like that. Will you turn right or left at this intersection? Will you take a bonus red or blue cube? A few decisions like that in a game are annoying, but too many and it’s a problem.

That begs the question: how do you avoid those? If you want to be on the spectrum between arbitrary and automatic, in the good, crunchy Goldilocks zone, how do you make that happen?

Well, as a true blogger, we’ll look at that on Thursday.

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