Tuesday’s post was presenting two types of non-decisions, which look like decisions from the designer’s POV, but not for players when they experience the game. Those were Arbitrary and Automatic decisions. Today we talk about avoiding them.
So what causes Automatic or Arbitrary decisions? They are two extreme of the same spectrum: Automatic is what happens when you have perfect knowledge of the impact of your decision -making it just a matter of comparing the numbers and choosing the one with the most benefits; Arbitrary is what happens when you have no knowledge of the impact of your decision -meaning all options look the same.
Therefore, stand in the middle. Done, blog post over. Nailed it!
You want a bit more? Oh. Okay.
So I think there are four important things to keep in mind in avoiding non-decisions, and in each, an example of a game I love which does it well:
Opacity is how I describe a game that, through layers of complexity, makes it hard to evaluate impact because of the limits of the human brain. Opacity is often achieved through multiple layers of math, mostly in economic games, but can come from important mechanisms which are not apparent from the get-go. Some will argue it’s a feature because of how clever you feel when you understand it, but I think it is quite problematic: either it leads to arbitrary decisions, because you can’t figure out what each move is worth, or it becomes an automatic decision once you can. I am a fervent advocate of games requiring as little brain juice to understand the rules, to have more left to understand the strategy: to me, opacity is a necessary evil that should be limited as much as possible.
A game that achieves depth without being too opaque is Russian Railroads: the impact of an action are as straightforward as can be, whether it’s gaining a new piece, or moving a piece forward. The impacts of a move are also straightforward: this will give you an extra point per turn, but gets you closer to you !-bonus. Instead of having very complex, interconnected systems, it presents them to the players in a really simple way.
Comparability is the ability to compare results. Back when I played Dungeons & Dragons, I had this buddy who just loved big numbers: he had an attack that dealt 20 damage, an attack that dealt 15, and one that dealt 10. Every combat, he’d do his 20, then his 15, then his 10. On the other hand, I had an ability to push enemies, one to stun them, one to teleport to another enemy I could see. Which one was best depended on the situation. Comparing them was more about gut feeling, making the decision interesting.
Wingspan is a great example of a game that makes choices hard to compare: even leaving out round objectives and egg maximums, are you going for the 2-food, 4pt, forest bird which gives you a bonus card; the expensive, 7pt plains bird which can give you an extra point every time you activate it, or for the quick to play, 3pt forest bird which has the same special ability, but a lower chance of success? How are you even supposed to compare those? Because they vary on multiple axes (without becoming opaque), and because of the special abilities which feel very different, it makes those decisions based on the situation rather than a clear cut better option.
Uncertainty is not having an exact value for an action, because its value depends on other things: a random factor (draw the top card from the Building deck and build it right away -but how good is that card?); other players’ actions (the player with the most Honor gains 10 points -how safe is my lead?); or your own future actions (gain an extra wood every time you go to the forest -how often will I get it?).
One thing to keep in mind is that uncertainty can lead to arbitrary decisions if taken too far, and if it isn’t combined with another mitigating factor. “Gain a point every time a blue card is played” is an interesting effect of uncertain result, but if I had to choose between that and “gain a point every time a red card is played”, unless I know what people are likely to play, then it’s arbitrary. If you mitigate it with comparability (gain a point per blue card vs gain a wood per red card), then it’s less arbitrary.
One game which uses uncertainty to make decisions interesting is Libertalia. Because of the simultaneous selection, and despite having perfect information of what others have in hand (barring some specific special effects), you can never be certain what the exact impact of your move will be, because the effects of the cards are interrelated.
Interchangeability is a really long word. I really like Euro games, but too many of them end up increasing the number of resources without making them feel different, and in so many games, the choice of a wood vs a brick is the color of the cube. Many games even allow you to pay resources of any type for a lot of things, making what little difference there was even thinner. Most of the time you care because you’re building towards something specific, but by giving each resource a specific niche, you’re making sure those choices stand on their own, not only when an objective requires a specific one.
Le Havre is an example of a game with a load of different resources, which each feel different, mainly through its two-level, multi-use system. Resources are upgadeable, each type leading to a specific “second level”; some are used for building, some for food, some for energy, and most change use on the second level; some reproduce on their own, while most don’t. All in all, it means that the decision between a Fish and a Coal is never arbitrary, and never automatic.
I think by keeping these four things in mind, the ends of the spectrum become easier to avoid.