Thursday 10 February 2022

Game Design #89: Too Many Decisions!

Given my whole game design series began praising 'decision points' - aka opportunity for player agency (decisions/tactics/choices) to influence the game - it seems unusual that I would decry having too many decisions. 

But ever played a boardgame where you just know you'll be stressed and exhausted afterwards?

1.Games can have too many decisions (volume). Humans have a finite amount of concentration/willpower. We can focus well for about 20-25 minutes at a stretch. We have about 3hrs total of executive thinking/complex decision making time per day, which is very glucose-centric. (^Also food for thought about how long your wargame should last)

I'm not a fan of wargames where you can walk away for 20mins and come back and your opponent is still making his move - there's not enough engagement and the 'pacing' is out. But if both players are mentally exhausted by a constant stream of minute-by-minute critical decisions - well, that also might not be ideal. 

If the stream of decisions is relentless - you can't look away for a minute, or have a casual chat with a mate while the game is progressing - then the game is only going to appeal to a particular audience.

2.Decisions can be serious/difficult or easy/inconsequential (impact). Not all decisions are equal in their stress level or consequences. Too many difficult decisions can be draining over sustained gameplay.

For example, in Infinity weapons fire is lethal and cover is very strong. Any opponent in LoS can react and fire on your active unit. You can continue to activate the same model, allowing you to chain together actions and perform deep flanking maneuvers. Each force might only have 5-10 models. Thus: a wrong move in LoS and you can lose a significant chunk of your force - or you could chain a series of inspired moves that allow you to outflank and rambo most of your opponents' force. Most Infinity decisions have serious consequences. 

In contrast, in LoTR:SBG goblin bow fire might only hit on a 5+ and kill on a 6+ - only about 6% chance of death per bowmen shooting at you - and I might have 50 troops in my army. Moving troops in LoS might not be such a weighty, serious decision, both for me or my opponent. Similar is a complex/difficult decision - it's one where you may have complex if/then implications to juggle. Like Chess, where you are trying to look several moves ahead. 

Whether it is the consequences or complexity - in the end it's about the 'brain drain'. Sometimes players need a 'breather' - or down time within the game.

3.Games can emphasize decisions in the wrong places.  This is a bit different to the first two examples. Playtesting my "Forgotten" sci fi horror rules, I kept playing around with rules with initiative and reactions. Rather than using the usual alternate activation (each player taking turns moving a single mini) I slowly evolved it so players rolled an opposed dice every time they did something in LoS of an enemy. This roll did several things - 

(a) determined the sequence of reactions/actions (and if reactions occurred at all, and ammo status) 

(b) if the active player rolled below a target number, the initiative switched to the reacting player

It was actually a pretty good rule. A single roll that accomplished a few things at once, and lots of tension every time you activated a mini. Lots of potential decisions - not only what you now, but if you lose the initiative - then what?

This initiative phase was so gripping I was spending all my time checking angles and thinking about future implications/facing. Unfortunately I was so intent on this I kept forgetting a whole layer of the game - the demonic entities that could possess troops (a bit like Warmachine) and the horror/morale effects.

This mechanic would be great for a modern spec ops/SWAT game where the gunplay/angles/positioning was the point of the whole game. But for my horror game with psychic and sci fi tech elements they were the wrong choice - a set of serious decisions that drew attention away from what made it a unique horror game. I had a decent mechanic but it focuses decisions in the wrong place.

                                           Are all the decisions in all the right places? 

While points #1 and #2 were more focussed on the mental effort required by the player, this last point links more with the feel of the game. A contrasting example:

Warmachine is interested in the use of focus, synergies between units. It has IGOUGO which usually gives too much mental down time (aka disengagement) to the inactive player. I generally dislike IGOUGO but it is a good choice for Warmachine as otherwise it would be difficult to co-ordinate units. In contrast to my example above, it has a (usually) poor mechanic which suits the feel of the game. 

(Edit) #4: Pacing. This may be the word I am looking for. Ever had a movie or book start well, but you lose interest halfway through? Other times (as per #1) a movie *cough Michael Bay cough* has so many relentless action scenes and explosions you actually become numb to them. Yes, I've fallen asleep during Transformers. This is probably kinda an overlap between #1 and #3 - sometimes in a game, if you are bombarded with too many decisions it's hard to see the actual critical ones. You can't appreciate or identify a critical decision or moment in the game. Can you identify the epic or 'oh s--t' moments afterwards? "I knew I lost when my wizard used his ultimate feat but failed due to..."  or "cavalry charge broke orc skirmish line." 

These critical decisions should also align with the key focus or feel of the game (#3). A game about sci fi horror should pivot on moments like "held ground and unjammed gun when faced with space ghouls due to team-mate morale boost" or "moved out of wifi range of corrupted cyber entity" not just be "established overlapping fire lanes/angles" every time.

I guess pacing is - are there critical moments in the game (like a book or movie), which align with the core focus 'feel' of the game - or is there such a relentless torrent of decisions you have no idea what went wrong and cannot point to the key passages of play. If every decision is equally epic, then they are all actually 'average'.

(Edit) #5. Long term strategic decisions vs short term reactions. In Chess you can sometimes see key moments building to a climax many moves ahead of time. In contrast, many reaction-based wargames (or ones with random activation) deliberately take agency from the player with almost no ability to plan ahead. I'm not advocating one over the other - it depends on your game design aim. Some players like strategically thinking far ahead to play plans - others like the feeling of just barely controlling chaos.

But a game that allows capacity for both short term tit-for-tat reactive play AND retains some long term planning might be a richer experience. A bit like TV series - some have great one-off episodes but no overall season arc. Others have mediocre acting and episodes but you keep watching because of the longer story season arc. Some TV shows have both great individual episodes and a good arc.

A high volume of decisions or many difficult decisions (aka complex decisions or those with serious consequences) can place a high mental load on players.  Other times, the wrong decisions can be emphasized - i.e. the players effort and attention is focussed on something that should not be central to the game, giving a completely different feel to the game than was intended.

Note: I may come back to this topic as I'm tired and feel I've only scratched the surface - so don't be startled if there's an edit adding in more points later, when I can articulate my thoughts better.


  1. I've been looking forward to this one and it did not disappoint. Lots to chew on there articulated far better than I have as I've killed over the topic before.

    1. Glad you found it coherent.

      I feel a like there's more aspects I haven't covered and I'll probably keep editing and adding to it when I'm more awake!

    2. *mulled over, not killed over...

  2. Well (Just to be annoying) I'll argue for wargames where you can walk away for 20 minutes before the opponent is still making their move. As you cited yourself, the average human attention span is about 20-25 minutes. So, if you can focus for 20ish minutes, and then not pay attention at all for 20 minutes, that might be ideal...not actually a fan of this style game, just playing devils advocate. Also, the glucose-dependent part might explain why so many people bring a snack to game night.

    1. When it takes 20min of time to simulate something which takes only several minutes or even seconds of real time, it just seems clunky - especially considering actions in real life are simultaneous.

      For an army/division/battalion level game a 20min turn might be OK - but for a skirmish or platoon level game it seems as awkward and 'off' as Bolt Action ranges.

      It's why I dislike most about aerial dogfight games. IU have to laboriously plot, record and write down moves, taking hours to play out what occurs in seconds.

  3. The Pacing piece is an interesting point that considered as I watched Ice Skating (Figure and Dancing, wot?) in the Olympics. There is a 2 minute routine BUT there are really only about 4 tricks that are worth anything (Big jumps), and about 4 smaller moments for technical filler (usually involving spins). So, each two minute routine is actually about 30 seconds or "critical action". The rest is to build momentum, speed, or distance.

    You could also think of a "wargame" as a three act play. The opening turns are the opening act, where the maneuver and set-up of the action occurs. The middle turns introduce the action and complication, with it all leading up to a big reveal in the final turns. This is a successful narrative structure and should probably be mirrored in most tabletop games.

  4. Let me know if any examples of this kind of game play, in my experience I've never seen it (and it's tangential to #5):

    I'm rank and flank historical/fantasy games I've never seen a game in which holding reserves was a good idea. That is odd to me because the use of a reserve force was pivotal in numerous historical battles. The is the other side where misuse of reserves caused them to sit on the sidelines until the battle was decided then leave to avoid sharing their comrades fate. This has the making of a great decision point I just haven't seen it done. Have you?

    1. I have seen it, BUT it requires the gameplay to be such that unit deletion is attritional, relatively quick, and deployment allows for depth. I think the best example I can think of is Sam Mustafa's Blucher, but I have also seen it in Warmaster Ancients Wars of the Republic, and other Nappie games.

  5. Hey there, just discovered your blog and your game design series is very enjoyable to read, i like to discuss game design aswell.
    I'm slowly going through them all ;)

    Regarding this particular one, on the reaction and turn structure topic. I've recently discovered the game clash of spears which has a rather interesting take on turns and reactions.

    I have to playtest it more as i only did 2 test battles but it seems quite nice, keeping both players engaged but very light regarding reactions compared to a game like infinity (which is the game i play the most lately)

    I'm curious to know what light/medium skirmish system you like most, i've played song of blade and heroes and of gods and mortals with my son a few times but i kinda agree that the amount of traits is tough on him. I need to make cards for each unit with traits explained or we forget a rule here and there too often for my taste.

    We don't play often enough to memorise them all so that's why i've bought clash of spears. More stats and less traits seems like a good fit and i'm quite pleased so far but i'm open to suggestions ;)

  6. Weirdly enough, my most commonly used fantasy skirmish system is LoTR:SBG from GW. It's a mix of familiar mechanics, with a simple A Move, B Move, A Shoot, B shoot, Both melee (A chooses order); but heroes/leaders can interrupt the sequence. Works with 5-50 minis.
    Is it the BEST system? Probably not. But for simplicity, familiarity and flexibility it's pretty good for low fantasy/historicals. -evilleMonkeigjh