Of limited choices and great gameplay

When asked about what makes a good strategy game, people talk of multiple paths to victory and a wealth of meaningful decisions. While “meaningful” is great, it’s the “wealth” that often becomes a problem.

Take an everyday situation like shopping for groceries and having to choose coffee, flour or a type of cereal from a shelf stocked with ten or fifteen different brands or flavours of what you’re looking for. Unless you already have a favourite or a set of very clear objectives, you’ll either lock up for a few minutes, or simply take whatever’s closest and continue.

Some games will put you in a similar situation. A Feast for Odin for example, while almost universally praised, will often leave first time players dumbstruck the moment they are faced with choosing one of the 61 actions (sic!) available. And while this number will steadily reduce every turn as action spaces are taken by other players (and you filter some out as simply unavailable to you at the moment), you’ll still be making a choice between a double-digit number of options.

I am not here to smear a great game by an almost legendary designer, but just point to an element that makes the learning curve much steeper. I would also be amiss to say that the sin of crushing players under a ton of choices is something I’ve steered clear from: Mistfall and Heart of the Mists are games that may overwhelm you when it comes to developing your hero. Yet, there are ways of flattening the curve without making gameplay quality concessions.

While having multiple choices is important, it’s their meaningfulness that really makes for a good strategy game. Often it’s enough to have two options, each of them bringing a set of clear advantages and problems to be solved later, to make for a great gameplay experience. This is why drafting games are rated so high: while you find multiple paths to victory (including but not limited to ways of scoring points) in 7 Wonders, you will never have to choose between anything more than one out of seven cards.

Another way of making the action selection more focused on the here and now is putting them on a rondel. Again, while there is a lot going on in Navegador or Hamburgum, the choices you make during a turn are realistically concentrated on two or three options, and giving you a perspective of two or three more on the next turn. While the choices are limited, I’ve yet to meet somebody who would contest the strategic depth of these games.

It’s not hard to find design choices that limit our turn-by-turn options, while still allowing the players to form a general strategy. Many deckbuilders offer limited choices of cards each turn (like Ascention, which is so popular that it’s on its tenth big box expansion). Many games find other ways to focus players on tasks at hand, instead of making them parse through dozens of options whenever it’s time to make their move (one of the options presented in our own In the Name of Odin with sets of action cards drawn each turn).

So, when it comes to gameplay experience, having a lot of choices is good, having meaningful choices is essential, and finding a way to manage the former without reducing the latter might make a difference between a good game and a great one.

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