In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the origins of analysis paralysis and five principles to keep in mind while designing. In this installment, I give you ten methods to reduce analysis paralysis and decision time in your games.
10 Methods to Reduce Analysis Paralysis in your game designs
- 1) Break Down Turns into Steps or Phases
- 2) Impose Limits
- 3) Reduce Turn Length
- 4) Use Hidden Information or Randomness
- 5) Reduce Opportunity Cost
- 6) Escalate Gradually
- 7) Prevent Cataclysmic Change
- 8) Eliminate or Reduce Calculation
- 9) Minimize Visual Information
- 10) Use Simultaneous Actions
- Ten Things I Learned in my First Five Years as a Game Designer – November 10, 2016
- How to Playtest – Part 3, Being a Good Playtester – August 24, 2016
- Why do gamemakers go to GENCON? – August 8, 2016
1) Break Down Turns into Phases/Steps
The terms phase and step are used interchangeably in different games, and some games use both, but think of them as ways of breaking down decisions into pieces, and controlling the timing of events in your games.
Take pressure off your players by allowing them to put one foot in front of the other by making big decisions in stages.
Individual Player Turn Phases: Break down a player’s turn into a finite number of phases. Each phase allows a different type of action to be taken. Usually, having phases will imply a set order, like in Dominion, with its two phases: Action, then Buy, or in Magic, the Gathering – untap, upkeep, draw, and so on. In some games, it makes sense to allow phases to occur any order: In many games you can move and attack, or attack then move.
In one of my favorite games, The Manhattan Project, each turn you either Place Workers or Retrieve Workers, these can be thought of as alternating phases. This sounds very simple, and it is, but this simple framework allows players to focus their attention on the complexities of the resource economics and the scarcities or abundance of opportunities available.
Game Phases: Another option is to have all players take an action or make a certain type of decision at a given time. Examples: (a) All players draw a new hand of cards (b) All players remove their workers from the board. (c) Each player may build one building.
2) Impose Limits
Not all limits make choices easier, but usually removing options makes it simpler to choose from the options that remain. You can remove insignificant choices in order to limit the factors players need to consider. For example, rather than letting a player place a new unit anywhere on the board, require a unit to originate from a designated space. The player no longer has to make the added decision of where to place the unit, and can instead focus on how to use that unit.
If a player has 11 actions to choose from each round, expect rounds to be slow, even if each of the 11 actions is simple (this is one dial you don’t need to turn up to 11). Give them 3. Reducing hand size in most games will reduce options and speed things up, but keep in mind that consumable cards are also a resource, so when hand size gets too small, the value of each card can increase to the point of making any given card harder to part with.
In Carcassonne, each turn a player gets only one tile and places that tile, but they still usually have several placement options and potential strategies to consider. Imagine if players drew 2 tiles instead? 3? What if they drew 5 tiles but could place 2 each turn? On the surface, these changes might sound like “better” or “meatier” versions of the game, with more options and more control. The reality is players would agonize over every possible combination of tiles each turn, slowing the game to a halt, and sucking the fun right out.
Don’t suck the fun.
3) Reduce Turn Length
Related to the Carcassonne example above, keeping turn length short allows players to continue where they left off each turn. Long turns breed even longer turns. (See Dominant Species) Waiting players might be able to plan their next move, but that will wear out fast. Players can be waiting so long they forget their strategies, lose track of the flow of the game, or worse still, forget how to play entirely. Nothing is worse than having to re-tell what’s happened over the last three turns every turn. Reducing the number of actions a player takes each turn can help keep things moving right along. In my game, Stones of Fate, players take only two brief actions each turn, which is important in a game that involves memory. Reducing turn length is especially important in games that support a large number of players.
4) Use Hidden Information or Randomness
Hidden information is a fascinating way to make decisions easier for players, and not always an intuitive design choice. One might assume that when everything is visible in a game, that it would follow that players would be able to make better decisions more easily – because all the information they need is right in front of them, like in Chess, Checkers, Mancala, and countless abstract games.
But when all the data is right in front of you, even when it is not all that complex, players can have great difficulty synthesizing it all and applying their strategy. Maddeningly long pauses can occur in games where people believe that the perfect decision can be found.
In Lords of Waterdeep, players each have a hidden secret bonus (the Lord card) based on accomplishing goals of a certain type; the equivalent of a “Guild” type card in many games. Because other players don’t get to see the bonus cards of their opponent, they cannot usually mathematically determine the winner prior to the end of the game. And while they may be able to surmise what moves will be beneficial or harmful to their opponents, they cannot automatically know precisely how beneficial or harmful those moves might be. Because of the hidden information, players cannot know the “perfect” move, and have to content themselves by choosing from good available moves.
I plan to delve more deeply into the concept of hidden information in a future blog, as it is the core of my game Replicant.
Randomness, of course removes some certainty about the value of decisions, and is a vastly complex and interesting topic. Rather than delving into randomness here, I will point you to the lecture notes of the master game designer, James Earnest (Cheapass Games). Volatility in Game Design
5) Reduce Opportunity Cost
Opportunity cost represents what is lost or given up when a given decision has been made: the road not taken. This method is a little trickier than some of the others to implement. We like decisions to matter in games, and consequently, we tend to design them so that players have to make tough choices and accept some sacrifice as they go about pursuing their goals.
Designers need to be careful that they don’t create so much fear of regret that players will get stuck in the quagmire of analysis paralysis.
I recently playtested a great new game in development called New York 1901 by Chenier La Salle. In this game, players are building the early skyscrapers that created New York’s iconic skyline. In an early version of the game there were several face-up bonuses that all players were competing for. Players received points for the buildings they built, and additional bonus point based on which streets they were adjacent to. When we approached end of the game, we could mathematically calculate the exact effect of our moves, and discovered that nearly every good move available involved giving up another equally good move. There were so many bonuses, we all knew the bonuses, and the bonuses were valued equally, so the opportunity costs were high. We couldn’t make a move without regret. We struggled through those last few turns and gave our feedback to the designer, who is continuing to develop what is certain to become a great game.
6) Escalate Gradually
It’s ok for things to start small. Start your game with just a few pieces, just a few cards, just a few resources. Let the first few choices in the game be simple, and allow the game to slowly ramp up to increased complexity. The pace and simplicity of the early turns will give players a chance to get warmed up, so that when complexity builds, they’ll be able to handle it more readily than they might have straight from the gate. In addition, starting small can reduce the impact of early game decisions, unless, of course, this is one of those worker placement games that allows some players to gain workers while others do not. Then you can be just be demolished by unlucky or poor early game moves (Upon a Fable).
A game that begins with tons of pieces, hour-long setup, and many choices can be daunting to a new player. (Runewars)
7) Prevent Cataclysmic Change
If the game state changes between turns, that is expected and usually a fun part of a game: there are more enemies now, you lost a monster, one of the spots on the board you wanted is gone, a new item is available. We like those dynamic situations. But changes in game state require shifts of strategy, so when everything changes, a player must spend a long time crafting their response and anticipating all of the possible changes that will occur the next time around.
When there is some degree of stability in the game between turns, players can plan their next moves. They don’t have to wait until it’s their turn to have an idea of what they’ll do. Dominion is great this way. You’ve got the market of cards in front of you the whole game, and you can be looking at and thinking about the cards you want next, and plotting how you’ll get them.
8) Eliminate or Reduce Calculation
Tokens, counters, cubes, and tracks can greatly reduce the need for doing any significant math beyond a little addition and subtraction. Often, with the right visual cues, players don’t even need to really do the math, they can just use estimation to determine greater than and less than, and heuristics to arrive at a probable outcome.
Let players who want to calculate do so, but allow players who don’t like math the opportunity to play your game by gut instinct.
If your game requires long division or adding fractions, you’re probably doing something wrong. Unless, of course, your game is a math game, like Tom Jolly’s Got it!
9) Minimize Visual Information
There’s really only so much data and so much visual information that players can assimilate before their heads explode. So, unless the goal of your game is to explode the heads of players, try to reduce the number of pieces, different colors, and quantity of data in your game. (Admittedly, there are some HUGE games out there these days that are well loved. I once saw players huddled around a ten-foot long version of Arkham Horror for a quick, 12-hour game.)
Find ways to make your color schemes complimentary, minimize the components required in order to display a given type of data, and leave enough space for players to tell things apart.
Ultimately, players need to be able to size up the game situation quickly in order to facilitate decision making.
If the visual information is too cluttered or confusing, the player isn’t using their mind to plan strategy, they’re using their mind to try to interpret the incomprehensible mess of hieroglyphs you created.
10) Use Simultaneous Actions
While not appropriate for many games, simultaneous actions, like the role selection in Race for the Galaxy, can really speed up a game, and simplify the process of decision making. It can also lead to big surprises and game swings, so it should be used with caution.
So there you have it, are you paralyzed now? Dumbfounded by the overwhelmingly vast options you have as a game designer? Or are you jazzed and ready to jump back into that game that you love to build but it’s still a pain. Good luck, and happy designing!
Game designer by night, and middle school science and pre-engineering teacher by day. He lives in Santa Maria California with his amazing wife and two unrealistically well-behaved children.
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Lot’s of good stuff here. I am going to keep this all in mind while redesigning Campaign Trail. We have already incorporated #8 by creating an electoral vote tracker. I am somewhat concerned with #2, #3, and #5 as we look at multiple ways to play each card. Lot’s to think about. Thanks!
Thanks Jeff. Lots here for me to keep in mind too. I found myself questioning many of my own design decisions as I was writing this piece. I’m looking forward to seeing how Campaign Trail turns out.
This list is a good resource. I’ve had good success with the “simultaneous actions” trick in my current project, Bunny Money Gunny. It lets players do their analysis at the same time as each other, while also creating a social pressure to keep up.
We ran into a sort of opposing issue recently with a prototype. Thematically we built the game to work in alternating day/evening rounds and only allowed one action on each round. Te result was super-fast turns, but it made players feel like they were often shoe-horned into a choice based on game state, rather than having the freedom to choose.
We have increased the actions each turn since, but are now in the phase where we finding that good mix of options and speed. This is a great article and we have literally touched on almost every one of these points as we continue to tune the experience!
Eric – Thank you for reading! And I’m glad you got some good stuff out of it. I had the exact same experience very early with Stones of Fate. I started with 1 action per turn. It worked sometimes, but often it took away control from a player and made their action insignificant. SOmetimes that can make things fast, but in some games, a player can belabor that one decision and drag the game out too (like in chess w/o clocks). In my first installment on this topic, I mentioned the principal of “Optimizing the Number and Complexity of Decisions” – I believe its not so much fewer decisions that is best, but an optimized number of decisions, which is of course different for different styles of games.
Fantastic read, thanks so much!
However, I disagree when it comes to Carcassonne. Drawing a new tile at the start of your turn is disastrous in my opinion, because you then have to work out where the best place is to put it while everyone else waits!
Consider this alternative: each player has a hand of 3 tiles. On your turn you play a tile and THEN pick up a new tile at the end of your turn. You have a whole round to think about where you’ll place next, and the game is WAY meatier and more satisfying. In my opinion, drawing 1 tile sucks the fun right out.
Gilbert – I got your Carcassonne fix. I’ve played this way so much I’d forgotten it’s not a given that everyone does. When you draw your one tile, you can do so as soon as the person before you. And that means that likely it isn’t even their turn yet because they too have grabbed a tile in advance. Nothing changes for anyone else, right? While the active person is placing, there’s no reason why the rest of the players don’t have a tile that they are mulling over while they watch. That’s the #1 way this helps.
#2 is that you can openly show your tile to the others while playing. Why not? There’s nothing that can be done to stop that placement, and I find that even in a competitive game, the other players will offer optimum moves to me if I want them just because we all enjoy the puzzle of best moves.
I see your point about 3 tiles in hand, (and sometimes I wish for that flexibility in games where I keep drawing tiles I don’t want) but with that many tiles, you are likely to consider all the roads, all the towns and all the possible farm placements, which I think will definitely take longer.
Several of these things actively encourage analysis paralysis rather than reducing it. Hidden information can just as easily stall out the game as players attempt to reason out what the hidden info is; randomness can make them work out the odds of several different outcomes based on several different random pieces. And splitting turns into place/remove usually just means that people do the analysis for two turns at once, every turn. (Tzol’kn, I’m looking at you.)
Personally, I found Stones of Fate to be a serious offender along both of these axes; I either had to spend a very long time on my turn, or feel really annoyed for not working out the correct moves. I consider the game pretty poor as a result.
Jacob, thanks for the feedback on this article. We haven’t looked at this topic for awhile, but you bring up some interesting points. Can you give an example of a game where hidden information hinders AP? I saw some games this year where the number crunching was bad, and I wondered if some hidden info wouldn’t have fixed.
Also, I don’t have any AP in Stones of Fate. The turns are pretty impulsive. Are you feeling annoyed due to the memory aspect? Cause that does get me – I don’t try and worry about the fact that my memory sucks, I try and have fun anyway. But I can see if you are trying to recall data, it may take time and feel pressured. I don’t think that game in particular is supposed to generate that result.
Hi Luke. I never got around to thanking you directly for these (series of) articles. I find myself continually returning to them, not just to fix or prevent AP issues but as great general design guidelines. After seeing you articulate these items in detail, I’ve been able to provide better analysis and feedback for other designers’ games, as well as preempt any steps we might take with our own games that could lead us down the road of AP. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, rarely it’s even desired, but for the most part your tips are a gold mine for both reviewing and creating games. Thanks man!
Thank you so much John! And thank you for being a playtester of my games. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you and your wife at events. See you soon!
A few years late on posting a comment about this article, but it’s really interesting to me in my current work/game design, specifically for a Strategy Video Game .
I feel that when I look at many Tactical/Strategy games and SRPGs, they are going completely opposite to the advice given here. Most of them will display as much information as humanly possible, and add complicated systems/rules for the player to master.
My fear currently, as someone who loves the earlier, simpler games, is that if I try to make a game that doesn’t cater to the current Strategy player crowd (who THRIVE in information analysis), I may create a game that the current fans of the genre wouldn’t play (It’s too obfuscated and/or seemingly simple for them!) and that non-fans of strategy games wouldn’t give a simpler one a shot because they’re turned off the genre in general.
Still, I have been a game designer for years. Fighting Analysis-Paralysis has often been on my mind and maybe I should follow my gut on this one.