Board game design, Strategy, Tactics

Creating interesting choices in your board-game

Introduction

A recent version of Voluntarios
A recent version of Voluntarios
The other day I was at the London Playtest Meetup, having just finished a test-game of Voluntarios. One of the players was pretty positive, but the other had this pensive look on his face: “It’s really hard to put my finger on it, but something is missing…”

This echoed my own feelings, so we discussed further, trying to find out what that “it” was. And after a few minutes we got it:

There were no interesting decisions that needed to be made!

In the game you pick a project and though they are cosmetically all different, they’re all fundamentally the same. And you’d have to gather resources, but one way or another, you’d get what you need. Sure, you could do things more or less efficient, but that was about it…

This of course is a very serious design flaw and so it needs to be fixed. But how?!?

Time to think deeply about what “interesting choices” in board-games are.

What is not interesting

To start out, let’s look at what are choices that are not interesting to make.

The obvious choice

You could have a hundred choices, but if one of them is so obviously the best one, then the other 99 might as well not exist.

In Voluntarios you lose points for having resources left at the end of a round. This means that spending any leftover resources becomes very obvious, even if it doesn’t gain you anything. You could not spend them, but that would just be silly.

The non-choice

Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here...
Which ever way you go, it seems to be the right way. No interesting choices to be made here…
“I can take that wood now, or I can take it later.”

Technically this is a choice, but the result of the two options is exactly the same and thus it is not an interesting choice.

Stated as above it’s pretty clear that this is not an interesting choice, but what I’ve found in Voluntarios that such a non-choice can be hidden somewhat: “I can take the wood now, but then Sarah will take the coins so I’ll have to pay in reputation to get my coin. Or I could take the coin now, but most likely Max will have grabbed the last wood, so I’m down some reputation to get that…” Again the result is exactly the same, but you’ve done quite some mental work to figure that out. Brainpower wasted (analysis paralysis!), without any real gain.

Another example of this is the Voluntarios projects mentioned, which do not fundamentally differ from each other.

The scripted choice

One choice can lead to others that you have to make.

In Voluntarios you pick a project and then you have to gather the resources to finish that project. Get that wood, or you’re simply not progressing (or worse, moving backwards). The one choice (of project) very much dictates which further choices you will be making.

Interesting choices

In the above there are some examples of what are not interesting choices.

What do all of these have in common?

They are all easy choices to make!

That is not to say there is not a lot of thinking done before: You need to analyze what the impact of each choice is. But once that impact is done, it’s clear which choice you should make. It’s the obvious one. Or the scripted one. Or it doesn’t matter because all options give the same result.

This should make it clear what makes for an interesting choice: One that is hard!

Hard choices

This may be hard to do, but the only choice seems up
This may be hard to do, but the only choice seems up
What makes a choice hard?

  • When you have several options and you really want the outcome of each of them
  • There are multiple options and they all have pros and cons in equal measure
  • All your choices are bad for you, but the game forces you to make a pick
  • You can go for the sure win, or take a gamble for larger gains, but also risk losing it all

A hard choice is where the outcome of all your options are about equally beneficial and / or where risk and reward are well balanced between different choices.

Uncertainty

Another aspect of a hard choice is that there is uncertainty about the impact of your choice on the outcome of the game. Even after all your analyzing there has to be ambiguity on whether you actually made the best choice. And only through playing the game through to the end will you see that (the combination of all) your choices were the best or not.

Which way will it take the game?

An interesting choice needs to have an impact; it needs to change the state of the game.

The bigger the change to the state of the game, the bigger the impact and thus the more interesting the choice. This is doubly so when different options will change the state of the game in radically different ways: “If I take the wood I’m setting myself up for a whole tonne of houses and workers, but if I take the stone then I can build a factory and start churning out victory points early…”

How to create hard choices

So how do you create hard choices in your board-games?

I think there are two-and-half ways of doing this.

Hard tactical choices

One stone. Where to place it?
One stone. Where to place it?
Decisions in board-games are about resources (in the very broad term of the word – this includes turns, spaces on the board, etc; see this post about resources in board-games): Which option optimizes the resources that are important to me?

Hard choices then in general will be about spending and getting resources: “I can take the wood, but then Alice will have the stone. Is wood or stone more important to me right now?” Or: “Should I spend my action to grabbing the stone, or building a factory?”

Or they can be about exchanging one resource for another: “John will trade me a sheep for my brick. Is that sheep more useful to me than the brick? And doesn’t the brick help John too much?”

To make resources important they have to be scarce (see this post for more on scarcity in board-game resources); if they are not then it’s a non-choice: Get it not or get it later, it doesn’t really matter.

Make tactical choices hard by having players choose between multiple resources that are all valuable to them.

Hard strategic choices

Build an engine and hope I have enough time to see it start churning out victory points, or try to go for the quick win, ending the game before the others really get going? Grab a few points every turn or build up for that massive blow in the last turn?

During board-games you will be making strategic choices and these have a deep impact on how you’ll be playing the rest of the game. Make a wrong choice and you might be hobbled or even doomed from the get-go. As such these are very interesting / hard choices to make.

Having multiple strategies to victory then allows for a more interesting choice to be made.

Even better, allow for sub-strategies: Maximize workers first, or upgrade your buildings so that your workers are most efficient?

Setting yourself apart

Diversity is good. In life and in board-games!
Diversity is good. In life and in board-games!
One of the basic ideas of Voluntarios was that you were all working on something together. The result of this would be that there was very little that was “yours”: A finished project would be for the entire village (and thus all players). This in turn means that there is very little to set yourself apart from the other players, making it almost impossible to have a strategy.

Strategies can be formed when you can do something different than your opponents. And just having the option to make different choices than your opponents be enough to have (shallow) strategies form. But to get deep strategies you’ll have to make sure that you can really go down a different route from the rest.

Interaction between tactics and strategy

“I’ve got this great option to grab a whole pile of wood. But the factory that will start churning out victory points requires stone…”

One great way of introducing hard choices is by having tactics and strategy clash. That wood is certainly come in handy at some point (and even if not, I’m very happy for others not to have it!), but it won’t help me in executing the strategy that I’ve chosen. Which is better in the long run?

Take-aways for game designers

Ask yourself: Where are the interesting choices in my game? What percentage of choices that a player has to make is interesting? Is that sufficient?

Ask the same of your play-testers: Which choice was particularly difficult to make (make sure that they understand that you’re asking about making the choice and not analyzing the options). Where did you wish you could do multiple things at the same time? Where would you rather not have chosen any of the options at all?

Force players to make hard tactical choices. Make sure there are multiple things they want to do. Or that all options are bad for them.

Add strategy to your game. Add multiple strategies to your game. Add sub-strategies to your game.

Further steps

Thanks!
Prior to posting this I asked for input on Twitter. Thanks for helping to: Sean, Levi McCormick, Eric Buscemi, Pini, Bearded Rogue Games and Coalition Games Studio
In this post I’ve only gone into the ideas of tactics and strategy for a bit, but these are very interesting subjects to delve into further.

I’m also thinking whether there are more ways of introducing hard / interesting choice to board-games. Maybe with further thought more will come up?

And of course now it’s time to use what I’ve dreamt up to make my own game better. When this is giving results I’ll be sure to share them as well!

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! Leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter?


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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2 Comments

  1. I love games with hard choices. A good example is the otherwise unremarkable Knizia game Knights of Charlemagne, which is a numbers/colours set building game. There’s a stack of cards and you draw one/play one, until the end of the game when you just play out the 8 cards in your hand without replenishment. The thing is, you save your most vital cards until those final 8, and every card you put down is going to give your opponent vital information in the end-game. So you get to a stage where you look through your hand and say “oooh, I don’t want to play *any* of these cards!”.

    Agricola too can have some really hard choices, usually of the tactics/strategy variety — “I really want to grow my family this turn but there’s nine wood there and I can’t possibly leave that on the table.”

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Sounds like an interesting game, I’ll definitely have to look into that! It feels a bit more “negative” than say Agricola, where the feeling is generally: “I want to do -everything-!”

      I think I’ll need to write a post on the brilliance that is Agricola at some point 🙂

      Reply

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