Board game design

14 ways of reducing analysis paralysis in your board-game

Introduction

Just give me a few more seconds, I almost know what move to make...
Just give me a few more seconds, I almost know what move to make…
Analysis paralysis: Your opponent just sits there, staring intently at the board, while you’re left thrumming your fingers and looking at your phone. It’s not a lot of fun, now is it?

In this article I want to look at where analysis paralysis comes from and, more importantly, ways of reducing it in your own game.

Thanks to the people who contributed

Prior to writing this post I asked my network on Twitter and Facebook whether they had tips to combat analysis paralysis. Some very good ones came up and I’ve added the name (and link to Twitter accounts) where appropriate.

Thanks for your contributions!

Where analysis paralysis comes from

In a typical board game you get to take one action at a time. You want that action to be “as good as can be”, meaning that it increases your chances of winning by as much as possible.

There will be many potential actions that you can take, each of which needs to be considered to assess which is the best one.

What makes this worse is that it’s not just the immediate effect of an action that is to be considered, it’s all the possible consequences from that action as well: Does it open up new avenues or does it close off options? Maybe this gives great results now, but screws me over in the longer run…

Worse, what will be the likely reaction of your opponent?

And even worse: How will you then react to that?

The result is that taking a single action requires significant mental work.

If that mental work grows too long other players start getting fidgety: Analysis paralysis as the downside of a deep / complex game.

Reducing analysis paralysis

So how do you reduce analysis paralysis?

Simple: By reducing the mental burden of assessing what the results of your possible actions are.

But how do you do that?!

Let’s take a look at some possibilities

Fewer options

The first possibility is the simplest: Reduce the number of options that a player has at any given moment. With fewer options there is less to search through when looking for that optimal move.

There are a few ways of implementing this.

1. Remove game elements / mechanics

Of course you want to make your game as realistic as possible. But does your city builder really need you to look at the sewage system as well? Remove that and the player doesn’t have to worry about it and so won’t have to analyze the options associated with it.

2. Remove resources

With ten cards in hand, there are ten choices to analyze; reduce that to five and you’ve cut the analysis time in half. Perhaps even better, because there are fewer combinations / orders to look at as well.

This holds also for “simpler” resources: It’s easier to figure out what to do with 1 wood than it is with 4 wood.

3. Remove choices

Chess would be so much quicker if we removed all those superfluous pieces!
Chess would be so much quicker if we removed all those superfluous pieces!
Perhaps you really can’t remove a certain game element, but maybe you can remove the choice from it. Imagine a game of chess where the rook moves exactly 3 spaces: The number of landing positions for this piece has suddenly been reduced significantly!

4. Randomize

Similar to the previous option, but instead of exactly prescribing how something acts, randomize how it acts.

Catan does this well: If you could choose what number came up at the beginning of your turn, you’d spend quite some time looking at who would benefit from which one, which number they would likely select, etc. Instead a bunch of dice take the choice away and speed up the game.

Note that randomization doesn’t completely remove the possibility to analyze results: You can still analyze what would happen if you throw a 1, 2, 3, etc. Many people don’t bother, but some will.

One way around this is by having handy “statistics”, showing what the more “likely” choices are, or where there is a cut-off between one result and another. Catan here is also a good example: 2s and 12s are rare while 6s and 8s are more common, so players can focus on that instead of looking at all possible dice combinations.

Both Creaking Shelves (@creakingshelf) and Tom Oliver had this suggestion.

5. Reduce arithmetic

"Do you expect me to calculate victory points in my head?" "No mister bond, I expect you to die."
“Do you expect me to calculate victory points in my head?” “No mister bond, I expect you to die.”
One thing that people are bad at is mental math. Adding, multiplying, dividing in your head takes time, especially if you have to do multiple operations.

Reducing the need to calculate can be done by removing any form of calculation altogether. If that’s not possible then keeping your numbers low already makes things much easier (quick: How much is 107 divided by 14?)

Thanks DiceBreakers (@thedicebreakers) and Tom Oliver (no Twitter) for this suggestion.

6. The obvious choice

Though you might not actually be reducing options, having one or more choices that are obviously better (or worse) than the others, means a player can better focus their attention.

Reduce consequences

Mental burden forms by going through the consequences of all options. If a single action results in only a single thing happening then it’s simple to see through; if it makes ten things happen then it’s going to take some time to analyses the results. Thus, reducing the consequences reduces the mental burden.

There are different ways of accomplishing this.

7. Reduce the impact of an action

After long analysis, we found that it's all paint in water...
After long analysis, we found that it’s all paint in water…
Playing a card might cause multiple things to happen at the same time, all of which need to be taken into account in your analysis. If however a card does one thing only, then it’s easy to see the consequences.

8. Reduce interaction between elements

Maybe an action only does one thing directly. But perhaps that has tag-on effect: “Draw a card”. But when you draw a card your opponent gets to play any cards. And when you draw a card pay one coin. Which your opponent can steal if they have the “thief”. Unless you have the “constable”…

Chains of cause and effect are complex and thus require more time to see through.

9. Reduce player interaction

“I could attack and take 3 points from Mary, but then I’d leave myself open to Sam. Unless Evelyn spies on him first…”

Player interaction can generate an endless amount of if-then possibilities, each of which needs to pass through your brain to get to an optimal solution.

And as other players have the same number of options as you have, the number of paths to analyze very quickly becomes extremely large.

Reducing how players can interact thus results in a large reduction in mental effort.

10. Reduce the number of rounds

If your game is going to end next round, then your choice only has a consequence for that one more round. If however it’s going to last for another 10 however, then theoretically you could look ahead those ten turns.

11. Make it too difficult to foresee the consequences

A penny for your thoughts. A quarter if you would just make your move already!
A penny for your thoughts. A quarter if you would just make your move already!
If it’s obviously too difficult to foresee (all) the consequences of an action then a lot of people will give up early.

This is a dangerous road to walk down though, because some people will do their best to analyze everything regardless and end up slowing your game down even further.

Sean (@tedthebug2602) came up with something close to this, which after some thinking I transformed into the above.

12. Hide information

If you don’t know about it, you can’t analyze it!

Hidden information is a very strong way of reducing analysis paralysis, without affecting the rest of your game by much.

Cards in hand, hidden objectives, victory points that are face down: All mean that the information required to fully foresee the impact of a choice simply isn’t there.

Note that even with hidden information it might still be possible to know something: I might not know the exact cards in your hand, but I know which cards are in the deck, so I could try to figure out if there is anything that would totally ruin my strategy.

Or your victory points might be hidden, but I memorized them in the process of you getting them.

Tom Oliver (no Twitter) was kind enough to pass on this hint.

13. A “static” board

When there is relatively little change to the state of the game between your last turn and your next, you can use other player’s turns to map out what you want to, reducing the thinking time during your own turn.

Both Tom Oliver and Robin David (@robinwriting) had this suggestion.

14. The timer

If all else fails, a timer can be added to limit the amount of thinking time that a player gets. This may put some players off, but if it increases the playability of your game, it might be worthwhile to consider.

Thanks Robert J. (@senorbaub) for this tip (even if it was tongue-in-cheek!).

It’s multiplicative!

If I move my rook to E7, then my opponent will be forced to draw a card...
If I move my rook to E7, then my opponent will be forced to draw a card…
In the above I’ve sketched (partial) solutions to analysis paralysis. Each of these could be reversed to show a cause of analysis paralysis. This could then be used to analyze your game to see what elements are (strongly) present.

Having one or two elements present shouldn’t be a problem for most games; it’s when you’ve got a number of elements that increase the mental burden of a move that it really becomes a problem. This is because elements don’t just simply add up, they multiply: Compare having 2 options with 2 consequence to having 4 options with 4 consequences is; the latter does not take 4 additional time (2 + 2 = 4 vs. 4 + 4 = 8; 8 – 4 = 4) but 12 additional time (2 x 2 = 4 vs. 4 x 4 = 16, 16 – 4 = 12)!

The upside of this is that reducing one source of mental burden can already clear away a lot of the analysis paralysis!

Some finishing thoughts

Above are 14 possibilities for reducing analysis paralysis in your game. Making your game play quicker is a worthwhile goal, but as everything in life, it comes at a cost; by applying these possibilities you might be changing your game beyond recognition or removing exactly those elements that make it fun

As always, it’s about trying to find a balance, in this case between quick game play and keeping the essence of what makes your game great.

Some people love brain-crunchers. Some people really don’t mind waiting for minutes for someone to make a move (we’re still playing chess after all!)

The possibilities above should therefore be seen as tools in your toolbox: To be used with careful judgement, at the right time and in the right way. It is my hope that having them in your toolbox will make you a better designer.

Further steps

I’m sure that with further thought I could come up with even more ways of reducing paralysis analysis, so maybe at some point in the future there will be a follow-up post on this.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know if you agree and where you think I completely missed the point!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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8 Comments

  1. Ben

    Honestly, I didn’t think there would be this many approaches outside of the semi-satirical #14 – but some of these are really juicy! Loving all of the community feedback that’s curated here.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      I was also surprised on how much I was able to find when asking and thinking about it. Of course a lot are variations on a theme, but some variations will work well for one game and not at all for another.

      Reply
  2. Nice list of ideas, Bastiaan! My final thought would be that sometimes it’s not worth compromising your game over such issues. Not every game should suit every player; if your game has lots of great meaty decisions, don’t cut them because some players spend too long analysing. In particular, my thoughts turned to Five Tribes: the core mancala mechanic is interesting, unique, and a lot of fun… so long as you don’t spend too long analysing the board! To reduce analysis paralysis in that game would have cost the game its very core. As you so rightly say, it’s about finding a balance.

    Reply
    1. Hi Matt,

      I fully agree that you shouldn’t use these tips indiscriminately. But if you feel that your game could do with less analysis paralysis, then at least now you’ve got some thing to try 🙂

      Reply
  3. Gilbert Walker

    What a great read! It’s certainly one I’ll come back to later in my designing too.

    I’d probably add two suggestions:

    1. Make core choices desirable/intuitive. This is kind hard to explain, but basically I think that if you design a certain action to “feel” good, players will be drawn to do this action over another. I’ve found it useful to have a kind of baseline action that will strengthen players for future turns. I often explain this saying, “If you don’t know what to do, do THIS action – it’s always good”. I’ve found that this gives players a sense of a secure base from which to judge the value of other actions…

    2. Control the flow of choices. Generally speaking, I think waves of choices can be more effective than a constant stream. Players can make important choices and then sit back and survey the outcomes of those choices. This ebb and flow is effective psychologically because it gives players periods of intensity and rest.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Gilbert,

      Making choices intuitive certainly is a good addition! I’ll be sure to add it if I ever write a pt. 2 of this post 🙂

      Regarding the “waves versus flow” I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure if it would be effective: Analysis Paralysis happens when there is too much to look at and it grows faster than linear with more options (because you have more comparisons to make). Thus if you have a “constant” flow of 3 options every turn or 9 options every third turn, then I think the total amount of time needed for the “wave” is higher than for the “flow”. Or am I misinterpreting your thinking?

      Reply
  4. John Michael Thomas

    Here’s another one that might fall under one of the others or not, depending on how it’s implemented: Segregate different types of decision making.

    For example, consider a game where players can choose different actions – and potentially block other player actions, and then while resolving each action additional decisions might be involved to figure out how that action can best benefit you. It’s possible to divide the choosing of actions from the resolution of the actions themselves; for example, in the first phase all players choose their actions, and in the second phase all actions are resolved. That separates one decision (what actions to take) from another decision (how to perform that action), making each decision simpler. In this particular example it also might separate decisions about competition (blocking other player actions) from decisions about how to improve your own position (resolving your actions). Ultimately, segregating different types of decisions may help reduce the complexity of considering all the interactions among multiple decisions.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi John,

      I’m not sure if I fully follow. I would imagine that if I made part of my move now and part of it later, I would try to take into account what my options would be in the “later” stage before making a choice “now”, thus leading to more mental effort and analysis paralysis. Or am I missing the point?

      Reply

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