Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Evaluating Player Choice

Every game offers players different choices. Some, particularly kids games like Candyland and Snakes and Ladders, offer no choices amid their extremely structured play experiences (and one might argue whether they’re tecnically “games”). Others like roleplaying games revel in the concept that “anything can be attempted” by providing an environment with seemingly infinite choices. Analyzing the degree of player choice in individual games can help us evaluate their suitability for different audiences or even our own gaming interest.

While contemplating the issue of player choice I’m reminded of two graphics in Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction, my handy go-to reference when I need inspiration in that field. In the section on “Using Constraints” Knight provides two illustrations to demonstrate how restricting story elements can limit characters. One looks like a well in which the character crouches beneath a stone cave-in, the other look like the symbol of chaos with a character and question mark in the middle. This also represents the restraints of player choice in games. In the former the character/player has few or no choices, hence limiting the story/game experience; in the latter the character/player has infinite choices with little guidance where to proceed. In most instances games should avoid offering no or too few choices. In some cases, particularly roleplaying games, players enjoy having too many choices; they’re often narrowed by in-game situations or character race or class limitations. New players might prefer games with a handful of choices each turn. Experienced gamers might prefer having numerous options open. This may explain the renewed popularity of Euro-style board games and the esoteric reputation roleplaying games retain among the general, non-gaming public. The more choices available to players the more daunting games seem to newcomers; yet that wealth of choice also attracts game enthusiasts to more complex game experiences like wargames and roleplaying games.

When evaluating player choice in games I avoid equating steps in a turn sequence with number of player choices. Some steps involve no player choice: drawing a card, flicking the spinner, rolling the dice, removing status markers, or otherwise undertaking basic maintenance duties. Some steps involve players carrying out choices made earlier. Looking over the quick-reference list for the X-wing miniatures game one might feel overwhelmed by the numerous steps: four phases in the game round, with two of those phases having six or seven steps, plus outlines of other factors in the game like combat bonuses and possible actions. Yet players have essentially three choices each turn: where to move, what action to take, and which opponent to attack. Within those steps, of course, are other choices depending on a player’s individual situation: what maneuvers can they choose and what obstacles stand in their path; what action should they take to maximize success this turn; what weapons do they use against which enemy fighters and how do they use game mechanics and special upgrades to manipulate the dice to their advantage? Although it seems players face three key choices each turn, each of those involves a greater degree of choice based on specific circumstances.

At the zero end of the choice spectrum we find children’s games like Candyland and Snakes and Ladders. These games offer no player choice. Participants roll the dice or draw a card and move the indicated amount, suffering the consequences or advantages wherever their piece falls. They have no choice and hence no control over their fate within the game. They’re more activities to occupy children’s time rather than true game experiences. (That’s not saying one can’t create house-rules to improve the game experience, but that’s a matter for some other discussion.) This doesn’t mean participants can’t enjoy such games. We’ve opened the old Kenner Star Wars: Destroy Death Star game before to play for nostalgia’s sake; while it has zero player choice options, everyone had a great time moving X-wing squadron’s around the revolving Death Star board, shooting TIE fighters, and randomly landing on the exhaust port space to win the game.

Just above that level we have games offering players one or very few meaningful choices. Monopoly remains an infamous example. Players roll the dice, move their token, and land on a property. In the early stages of the game their choice remains limited to whether they purchase properties on which they land. Later in the game they can choose whether to improve properties they own. Occupying someone else’s property requires them to pay rent (no choice there), sometimes forcing a choice as to which of their own properties to mortgage or trade to gain more cash. Aside from one central, binary choice to purchase property, the game offers few other choices and hence fewer opportunities for true strategy. (For more Monopoly criticism I recommend Greg Costikyan’s Uncertainty in Games, pp. 35-37.)

Euro-Style Games

Euro-style games don’t always offer many choices, but when combined with other elements like hidden objectives, board layout, and player interaction they provide an easily explained entry to the hobby for newcomers. Look at three classic Eurogame examples to see how a few decision points combine with strategic factors to enhance the game experience:

Carcassonne: In this game players take turns drawing and placing tiles to create the city of Carcassonne and its environs. While the tile drawn remains completely random, players must choose 1) where to place it among existing tiles, and 2) whether to place a meeple to claim one of the features on it (city, road, monastery, or farmland). Yet these two choice rely on the existing arrangement of previously placed tiles: where it most benefits the player, where it might hinder other players’ objectives, whether another player has already claimed a connected feature. It might seem simple with two choices based on a random tile draw, but the situational factors help give Carcassonne some competitively strategic gameplay.

Ticket to Ride: Each turn in this railway building game players must choose only one of three options: draw two color-coded railway car cards; choose an extra destination card; or use sets of existing cards to claim railway lines connecting cities on a map of America (or other nations in other versions). Players seek to build these lines to score points, both for the length of lines claimed, the longest line at the game’s end, and for completing routes on their destination cards. Although players essentially have one choice among three options each turn, the element of hidden goals (in the secret destination cards), the arrangement and length of routes on the map, and player competition for railway lines provides engaging strategic drama and a satisfying play experience.

Settlers of Catan: In what many might consider the first Eurogame, players seek to build the most settlements and roads on a hex map of the island of Catan. Each turn begins with a random step of rolling dice to determine which hexes yield resources to adjacent settlements. Players have two basic choices each turn: whether to trade resources and, if they have enough, whether to build settlements, cities, or roads connecting their existing pieces. Opportunities for trade depend on what resources the active player wants and what resources various players are willing to trade; a player with settlements on the coast can also trade with the bank at set ratios. Players may also “buy” development cards they can later play for bonuses or use in scoring. Building options depend on what resources a player holds and where on the board he can build without interfering with other players’ construction. Rolling for resources may result in the active player moving the “robber” piece, which negates production on one particular hex; hence an additional if infrequent opportunity for an extra choice. Although many options within gameplay might seem daunting to newcomers, the essential player choices remain limited to two, sometimes four, each turn.


Most wargames – including abstracted ones – seem to offer players two principle choices with many options: movement and attack. Individual games do offer some variety, providing choices for set-up, command structure, morale mechanics, limited troop actions, and other nuanced aspects of combat, depending on the game’s scope. Abstract strategy games like chess and checkers, which some might see as distilled wargame experiences, provide a good baseline for more specific wargames, both of the chit-and-board variety and those using miniatures. They can offer many movement and attack choices limited by the situation on the board. Despite having essentially two choices – where to move and how to attack – the strategic options within each player choice might seem boundless. Wargames typically give players a “movement phase” where they can move some or all their units; yet game objectives, unit composition, enemy disposition, and terrain (among other factors) complicate the question where to move particular units. Attacks depend on proximity of enemy units, strength and composition of the attacker, intervening terrain, and other considerations. The complexity of these games – despite the few key choices players make each turn – can discourage casual gamers and helps ensure wargaming remains a niche pursuit within the niche of the adventure gaming hobby.

Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying games, with their premise that “anything can be attempted,” bring almost infinite player choice to the table. Granted, choices remain limited by the parameters of a given situation and the abilities of characters, but they remain quite numerous. Player choice begins even before the game starts. The character creation process presents players with a host of choices to determine the abilities their hero possesses: which attributes gain higher or lower values (depending on the system used), class and race, equipment, arms, and armor, feats and special abilities, and spells or other class-specific elements. Looking at a roleplaying game character sheet is a good way to judge a game’s complexity of choice at the earliest stage of “play.” Each stat or category provides yet another choice among the system mechanics. It illustrates not only the wealth of player choices but the complexity of information management during the game.

In creating scenarios gamemasters have seemingly unlimited choices among plots, locations, adversaries, and other story elements, not all of which are defined by rulebooks. All these components rely on identifying and adjusting age-old storytelling tropes to the specific game experience and translating those into the game’s mechanical parlance (such as scenario structure and stat blocks). The choices in scenario design remain as unlimited as those any literary author faces. (I’m not going to debate the merits of “sandbox” scenarios and what some might call “railroading” adventures – I’d call them “narrative structured adventures” – though they rely on similar concepts of unlimited and very limited player choice.)

Within game adventures players face numerous choices. What order do they proceed into the dungeon? Which passages and rooms do they explore. What precautions do they take against monsters and traps? How do they divide treasure? While the gamemaster presents various situations, each player chooses how to react within the scope of their characters: do they fight (and if so, using what weapons and tactics), parley, use thief skills, cast spells, or run away? A game in which “anything can be attempted” provides seemingly infinite player choices.

What Does Player Choice Mean?

Given this general analysis, is there a way to quantitatively “map” the number of player choices as well as the number of options within those decision points? What can such analysis tell us about the complexity of a game and the quality of its play experience? Although it’s nice to step back and examine player choice, it’s an empty exercise unless we can use it to some advantage. Determining the number and complexity of player choice might help us compare games. Analyzing player choices and the factors limiting or multiplying options within them can provide some insight into the complexity of a game. Does having fewer player choices limit a game’s enjoyment? Can having too many player choices overwhelm new players? The wealth/dearth and quality/complexity of choice in a game is just one factor that can enhance (or detract from) the game experience. Other elements, such as the personalities of other players and the degree of strategy involved, can heavily affect one’s play experience even in games with few choices.

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