Lately, I have been working on two heavier designs. One is an upcoming release to come out at GenCon and the other is a new co-design with fellow Leaguer, Luke Laurie, which we’re calling “Rising Tide“. I have spent a lot of time watching players making decisions on these meatier games and I want to share some of the insights I’ve had about decision making.

whistle-stop

Don’ts

  • No Critical Decisions on the First Turn
  • First time players don’t know your game yet when they start playing, so they shouldn’t be asked to make a critical decision right from their start that may doom their game play.

    I hate to pick on Catan, but based on my experience the first decisions in the game are some of the most important: where to place your initial settlements. Bad initial placements can definitely doom a player. There are a lot of things to think about: the frequency and distribution of the resource numbers, which resources the player has access to initially, the potential places the player could go next, and the position of 2:1 ports that might combo well with your settlements. How is a first time player supposed to grok all of that? They simply can’t.
    catan1

    In one of my designs, I considered giving players a starting hand of potential goals and letting them choose which ones to keep. I realized quickly this was a bad idea. How could a new player possibly judge the difficulty and value of the various goals, or how certain goals might combo well together? They can’t.

  • Keep Decisions Out of Upkeep
  • Many heavier games have some sort of upkeep. Maybe resources come out every turn. Maybe cards come out every turn. It’s tempting to want to involve players in this upkeep. Maybe you should let players help decide which cards in the supply should get discarded. Maybe you should let players decide where various resources should be seeded. Don’t do it. While occasionally, these sort of upkeep decisions might be interesting for players, most of the time they suck up a lot of unnecessary time as players ponder the possible ramifications of putting a resource in this province vs. this province. For the other players, this delay is not fun.

    Remember, upkeep is not fun, so take decisions out of upkeep and make everything happen in a well-understood, deterministic fashion.

    In one of my designs, there were different sets of buildings available to be built. Occasionally, a special building would come out and replace one of the other buildings. Initially, I had players decide which normal building got discarded and replaced with the special building. I quickly saw that players took way too much time pondering this decision when it really didn’t matter and it only slowed down the game, taking time away from the really fun decisions in the game.

  • Be Wary of Non-trivial Mid-turn Decisions
  • Ideally, in meatier games, a player can think about their next move while other players are taking their turn. When it’s finally that player’s turn, the player can execute their well-crafted move and then the next player can take their turn.

    However, I’ve noticed in some games, a player’s move might trigger a certain event or offer variable reward which the player can choose. In other words, the player might suddenly have to make a non-trivial decision they weren’t expecting in the middle of their turn. A classic example would be a player activating a power that lets them search through the discard pile for any card they want. As you might expect, these sorts of mid-turn decisions can slow down a game a lot. Other players are waiting while the current player has to reevaluate how to take best advantage of this new information.

    In one of my designs, the player can gain a variable reward when they complete a certain goal. While the player might have planned out their turn in advance, they usually hadn’t considered what reward they should take, so when it came time to claim their reward, the player would usually stall and try to carefully consider their options. I still really liked this feature, but I tried to minimize how often this would happen so it wouldn’t continue to disrupt the game flow.

Do’s

  • Everyone can understand why the winner won
  • How often has this happened to you while playing some Eurogame? The game ends, the score is close, but everyone looks around uncertain why exactly the winning player won. This is often the critique of so-called “point salad” games. If every decision gives you points, it can be hard to figure out which decision was the most important.

    hacienda1
    Sorry to pick on a published game, but I found my first plays of Hacienda on yucata.de to be puzzling. I was losing badly, but I really didn’t understand how the winners were winning. In the game, everyone is claiming land tiles, placing animals to reach markets and trying to be near water, but it was hard to parse which of the various ways to get points were most important. Contrast this with a similar game, Kingdom Builder , which has 3 main ways to get points every game. As the points are calculated at the end of the game, it is usually obvious how the winner won—they scored amazingly well in one or more of the 3 main ways to get points.
    KingdomBuilder

    What advice can I give? I think it helps to have a hierarchy of points in the game. Players will naturally pay more attention to the 20 point actions than the 5 point actions. When the winner completes 4 20 point actions, that makes a bigger impression than if the winner made 10 different 8 point actions. Who can remember all those actions? In my current designs, there are definitely landmark ways to get points that stand out from the rest and are the source of the winner’s victory.

  • Losers can understand how they could have won
  • The reverse of the previous point is that losing players should be able to think back over their play and say, “I see. I should have done that instead.” If instead losing players have no idea what they could have done to win, that’s a problem. This means either players do not understand the system of the game and how different elements work together, or players feel like too much of their fate is determined by luck.

    In the first case, it’s helpful to structure turns and the layout of the board to reinforce the game system. You do this to get this which in turn gets you points.

    If the game is a flowchart of causes and effects, it’s helpful if the arrows are always going in the same directions.

    Allowing every element to affect every other element in unexpected ways may sound like an innovative idea, but it may also confuse players as to how the system is supposed to work.

    If players feel like their fate depends too much on luck, then maybe certain cards are not balanced. You wouldn’t want a player to always win or lose if they draw a particular card. Or maybe the cards are balanced, but only if all players are experts. If there is a card that only an expert would know how to use well, then maybe that card would be better to include in an expansion then in the initial release of the game.

  • Put a Cap on Turn Length
  • In many games, there are often ways to gain extra actions which in turn can lead to more extra actions which might lead to even more extra actions.

    While chaining actions together can be fun for the player doing the chaining, the rest of the table is waiting for the player to finish their 10 minute turn.

    I think allowing for some extra actions might be OK, but I think having a limit is a good idea. Sometimes games have a certain number of actions, but then they also have optional actions which can also be performed which don’t count as normal actions. This may sound like it increases player freedom, but it likely can lead to unexpectedly long turns. Good players will naturally want to take advantage of every extra action they can do, so put some limits and make sure all (or nearly all) actions are included in the limits.

    In the early phase of one of my designs, a player could take up to 6 actions on their turn. It could lead to some crazy good plays, but it was also leading to some crazy long turns. I realized quickly I needed to reduce that down to 4 actions. 4 actions still allowed for clever play without adding too much time burden on the game. In that same design, I added upgrades which gave players new special actions they could do. I made sure even these new special actions obeyed the same 4 action limit so that players’ turns weren’t getting longer even after getting the upgrades.

  • Have a common threat
  • I need to give Luke Laurie credit for this idea. In addition to having players compete against each other, the game can become even more compelling if the game also competes against all of the players. I am not talking about a cooperative game. I am talking about a game that throws threats at the players as they play.

    Energy Empire

    In The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, designed by Luke Laurie and Tom Jolly, players are competing for energy and buildings while constantly having to deal with pollution in their environments. In another game prototype by the same designers, players have to protect their workers against comets while also competing for precious resource spots and planets.

    The decision space gets more interesting when a player has to weigh how to deal with so many threats and it can help to balance out different player skill levels. In Rising Tide, players are constructing buildings and moving engineers in a dystopian city while having to deal with rising waters that threatens to drown their engineers and flood the buildings. It’s delicious fun trying to deal with so many challenges.

  • Add spatial dimensions to decisions
  • You can check out a whole post I did about Spatial Games, but I am definitely biased toward spatial decision making in games. I believe that spatial aspects literally add more dimension to decisions without necessarily making them more complicated to understand.

    Auction games don’t usually have spatial dimensions, but then you play a game like Metropolys and you see that they can. In Metropolys, players bid where skyscrapers can be built, by placing numbered buildings on the board. Each successive bid needs to be a higher number and in an adjacent position on the board. Clever players can box in other players based on where they place their bids/buildings.

    IMG_7804
    In Rising Tide, we took as a starting idea, “let’s make a spatial worker placement game” and I think we have succeeded pretty well on that premise so far. Stay tuned for more details as the game develops.

rising-tide
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my points? What advice would you give about decision making in heavier games?

Scott Caputo

Scott Caputo loves to get creative: doubling up on board games and poems. His publishing credits include Völuspá, Kachina, and the forthcoming, Whistle Stop. By day, he manages a team of casino game designers and by night, he gets soundly beaten at board games by his wife. With her help, he’s busy raising two young boys to be total board game nerds.

19 Readers Commented

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  1. Al Leduc on February 9, 2017

    “In my current designs, there are definitely landmark ways to get points that stand out from the rest and are the source of the winner’s victory.” If the “landmarks” are so important, then are the other ways to get points even necessary? I guess they could be useful for tiebreakers.

    • Scott Caputo on February 9, 2017

      Yes, secondary scoring is still important. Winners do a great job scoring landmarks and also score secondary points as well, which can be the difference between first and second place. Losers don’t score enough in the landmarks.

  2. Al Leduc on February 9, 2017

    It sounds like you should drop the other scoring ways. The game is decided on the Landmarks. Just use something else for a tiebreaker. This way, first time players won’t be tempted to spend time on the other scoring ways, and will instead focus on the only things that matter. You should be able to cut down playtime too by removing the need to score the little things (unless there is a tie).

    • John Warfel on February 9, 2017

      I think that secondary scoring is important because it allows players to try a different strategy and pull off an unexpected win by focusing on completing many smaller goals while everyone else was fighting over the resources needed to complete the landmark goals.

  3. Chris Anderson on February 9, 2017

    This was very helpful for a design I’m currently working on. It inspired a couple of ideas to help it move smoothly. Thanks.

    • Scott Caputo Author on February 13, 2017

      Thank you for reading, Chris. I’m glad my article was helpful for you.

  4. Brandon Raasch on February 9, 2017

    Understanding why the winner won is a great call out. I played 7 Wonders with a mix of new and experienced players. It became pretty clear that the easy to read victory points on in Buildings left the new players baffled by the exponential scoring of Science cards. One mechanic easy to learn quickly, the other isnt even expressed on the cards. When Science won out, everyone felt a little jipped.

    • Scott Caputo Author on February 13, 2017

      I agree about 7 Wonders. It’s hard to develop a winning strategy since it’s really hard to understand how the winner won in each game. It’s a fun game for 7 players, but also a bit baffling to play.

    • Apertotes on February 17, 2017

      Well, I do not know how the game was explained, but, in the manual, science cards are explained very clearly. If new players did not know about it, I would blame the owner of the game more than the game.

  5. Steven on February 10, 2017

    I take issue with your first point. I understand the desire to keep new players in the game when the don’t yet understand what’s going on, but removing critical decisions from the early game effectively makes the early game needless and a waste of time.

    If it’s important to ensure new players don’t lose the game on the first turn (and I’m not sure that is is), a better solution would be to make those decisions for the players, giving them an opportunity to learn the game without ruining their positions with early mistakes made out of ignorance. There are many examples of this in heavier games already. I will point out Arkwright as a good example. Even if starting with Water Frame (which is perfectly acceptable), there is a generic setup available where many of the early choices are already made.

    Once players have experience with the game, the ‘training wheels’ can be taken off, and players can (rightfully) have the opportunity to remove themselves from contention with their very first choice in the game.

    Unless you’re designing for an audience who will only play your game once or twice before moving on to another game, but that’s not something a designer should aspire to, no matter how large the audience that actually consumes games that way.

    • Scott Caputo Author on February 10, 2017

      Thank you for reading, Steven. I have not played Arkwright, so I can’t speak to that game. When I say “no critical decisions”, I don’t mean “no meaningful decisions”. By critical, I mean you can literally lose the game with little hope of recovery, but certainly I would hope the first decisions can still be meaningful.

  6. Kyle on February 10, 2017

    Be Wary of Non-trivial Mid-turn Decisions?

    This seems a particularly bad point of advice, as these are really what will make a game interesting. Picture yourself sitting there, planning only, never needing to worry about your opponent. Why have an opponent there at all? These types of games may be popular with the masses, but they are quite dull. The ‘I optimized slightly better than you’ genre of modern games.

    Tactical play is really what drives interesting decisions and drives players to strive and compete. Having to react to other players is the hallmark of them actually mattering. If they can only trigger trivial changes to the game state, the game itself is trivial, or just a puzzle, to be solved on your own time. The ability to react, and react optimally/efficiently is also a more impressive skill than connecting the dots on a plan. Navel gazing around a table is hardly entertaining.

    • Scott Caputo Author on February 11, 2017

      Thank you, Kyle, for your excellent point. My advice was not about having to react to other player’s decisions, but rather for players to have to rethink their whole turn based on something that happens in the middle of their turn. I agree those types of decision can be very interesting, but if a game has too many of those it will definitely slow down the game a lot to the point of the game being less fun. Also, I said “be wary”, not “don’t every do it” In my example, I did not remove that element, but rather tried to limit how often it would happen. Hopefully, that advice makes more sense to you.

      • Al Leduc on February 12, 2017

        Usually if a player needs to adjust their plan based on another player’s actions, they do so before their turn starts. I mid turn adjustment would only be necessary if chaos is introduced mid turn, which I agree should be limited.

  7. Adam on February 12, 2017

    I really enjoyed reading your article. One way to mitigate the “no critical decisions in the first round or set-up” rule is to devise a beginner setup in the rule book. To use your example, Catan does this very well by showing a beginner setup for 3 and 4 players which starts everyone on equal footing. Then as experience grows, players can choose start positions using the standard board and then move onto random boards later. Quite a good way of introducing advanced mechanics in a step wise function. Alternatively, Pandemic’s initial setup is simple but elegant- infection numbers and positions decided randomly by the infection card draws. Imagine what could be an onerous start where players have to choose what cities to infect?

  8. Shao-Ying Chen on February 14, 2017

    Great article! I’m a boardgame gamer and designer in Taiwan, and I’d like to translate this article into Chinese to facilitate the understanding of boardgame designing principles for boardgame designers in Taiwan. Of course, the original author and the location of these articles will be subscribed in the beginning of the translation article.

    May I have the pleasure to translate these articles and publish on the Facebook fan page about boardgame designing and testing? Thanks!

  9. Scott Caputo Author on February 15, 2017

    Sure. Thank you for the honor.

  10. Apertotes on February 17, 2017

    One of the most critical decisions in any civilization game is where to settle you first city. It is a decision I enjoy immensely, so I really do not agree with that point of the article.

  11. Tim Mierzejewski on February 22, 2017

    Very cool points. It’s easy to become blind to some of these when you’ve gotten so involved in a design, until you start doing some playtesting and realize some serious pain points.

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