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How Many Choices is “Too Many”?

“Hard core” video games involve many choices, while casual games have fewer, and “social network” games have very few significant, plausible choices. Though even the simplest game involves more choices than a novel or film.

(While this piece was originally written for my game design blog, which attracts many more tabletop than video gamers, I think it can be instructive to video gamers as well.  I have added material that applies more specifically to video games.  Briefly put, in many cases “hard core” video games involve a lot of choices when there are decisions to be made, while casual games have fewer, and “social network” games have almost no significant choices (and often very few decisions).)

Several people have pointed out that a major difference between wargames and Euro-style games is the number of (plausible) choices presented to a player when it is his turn.  Wargames, especially the old-style (“traditional”) Avalon Hill hex and counter wargames like Stalingrad, Afrika Korps, Waterloo, and their descendants, offer vast numbers of choices to a player when it's his turn and he can move every one of his 40 or 50 or more units in a great variety of ways. 

Some of these choices are not plausible but a great many are.  The great number of choices is one of the reasons why these games can have a lot of depth (“strategic depth” is the phrase sometimes used).  There can be a lot of strategy in the game because there are a lot of plausible choices.  And it's notable that these are two-player games, where you don't have the variables of the intentions of several other players and you don't need to worry about the impact of your choices on what those players might do to you.  In a two player game you know the other player is your enemy, period.

In most Euro-style games you have relatively few plausible choices in your turn.  In the Euro games where you're playing cards then you only have as many choices as the cards allow.  You are often limited in the number of cards that you can have in hand as well.  In Euro boardgames you often control very few pieces or units, and you are often quite limited in what you can do by action points or money or other resources.

This means that often players are "put on the horns of a dilemma" in choosing amongst the few alternatives that are available.  And that's what games of strategy are about.  But in wargames with many more choices, the dilemma is often greater.

While many hard-core video games are quite simple in their essence, there are still lots of decisions to be made, decisions that make a difference to performance, and sometimes those decisions involve lots of different choices.  Real-time or turn-based strategy games offer (after the first few minutes) many, many choices.  Shooters are a very simple genre (mostly amounting to “kill things and blow stuff up”), yet there are constant decisions to make about where to go, what to aim at, when to attack and when to take cover, and so on.  Many of those decisions offer lots of choices, though it’s inherent in a single-avatar game that you have fewer choices than in, say, a real-time or turn-based strategy game where you control many units, and often an economy, rather than one “person”.

In a multi-sided wargame (such as Diplomacy) consideration of the intentions of other players increases the range of options when you play.  On the other hand, even though most Euro-style games are for more than two players, there often isn't much direct interaction with other players.  That means you don't have to worry as much about their intentions as in a wargame, again limiting the number of choices you have to consider.  And in traditional video games there is only one player plus the computer, further limiting the number of choices when compared with two or more players/sides.

Concomitants of few choices
I'm convinced that this difference in the number of choices means that it's much easier to play a Euro-style game intuitively than to play a traditional wargame intuitively.  To me when you have a large number of choices you have to use logic, as well as intuition, to effectively decide what to do.  But I can't explain that conviction, as I think you could argue that when there are too many choices to rely on logic, that's the time when intuition can be more effective.  Perhaps it's just that I play logically rather than intuitively, and I grew up with traditional wargames.

Another consequence of limited choice is that players can fail to pay attention for various intervals and still have a chance of using their intuition to choose an at-least-decent move.  If you don't pay attention in a typical hex-and-counter wargame you're going to get your butt kicked by an opponent who is paying attention. 

On the other hand, in most single-player video games you cannot actually lose, you just go back to a save point and try again, so the cushion allowing the player to fail to pay attention is built in.  Yet success in many video games can require high levels of concentration, even as the game allows the player to stop entirely, or to lose concentration but lose nothing because he can go back to a save point.   Practically speaking, when you play a single-player game, you have the benefits, the forgiveness, of a game with fewer choices combined with the potential complexity of many choices when you decide to concentrate.  This changes when you play video games against other humans, however, though constant and near-immediate respawning can cushion the inattentive player.

Limited plausible choices in tabletop games also means the player does not need much downtime to think about how he's going to move/play.  In effect, each player's move is much less complex than in a wargame, but it takes much less time as well.  In a sense it is as though you divided up the wargame turn into many separate turns.  Yet the Euro games do not take longer than wargames, in fact typically less, and that may be because Euro games usually have more or less arbitrary turn limits.  You play to a certain number of turns or points and then you're done, you don't have to dominate the opposition in the sense of wiping them out or capturing their capital or other distant/difficult objective that you would have in many traditional commercial tabletop wargames.

Another consequence of the relatively small number of choices is that many Euro-style games are fairly "transparent," that is, after a player plays one game he often thinks that he knows the right things to do to win, and in many cases he's correct in that thought.  This contrasts with many other games, especially some wargames, where you may have to play the game quite a few times before you come close to fully understanding the strategies involved.  I'd cite my game Britannia as a case where playing once only begins to reveal the strategy of the game.  People who are used to transparent Euro games sometimes play Britannia and complain that the game is badly unbalanced, because they have not yet begun to see what the various colors can actually do to influence/control the outcome.

This transparency is one of the reasons why Euro-style games are popular.  After all, the origin of Euro-style games is as "family games on steroids," and while we are long beyond that with many Euro-style games, there is still this tradition that they should be relatively easy to "figure out" how to play well.

The transparency of most Euro-style games may help explain why so many of them are only played a small number of times.  Players figure it all out quickly, then move on to the next game.  Perhaps it’s more likely that a game with few plausible choices per turn is less likely to have the kind of depth that characterizes some games with lots of choices that people play dozens to hundreds of times.

You can see how the above discussion of Euro games can also apply to casual video games.  A difference is that single-player casual video games are often played to pass the time (“kill time”), so once the player has figured it out he or she is content to keep on playing again and again.

Much of transparency comes from the limited number of plausible choices players are typically faced with.   If there are more choices than a player wants to deal with, "analysis paralysis" can set in.  The player can't figure out what to do, and does nothing for an extended period., either not taking his turn, or doing nothing in his turn.

A traditional single-player video game can be solved, like a puzzle.  Some puzzles are harder than others, but the recent history of video games is to make the games shorter and easier to “beat”.

Most video games, by their nature are pretty transparent.  Players expect immediate rewards, instant gratification--you don’t even have to read rules to play--and games that don’t provide this are often rejected.  Players of many kinds of video games focus more on quick movement than on strategy, and expect to figure out pretty quickly which are the best kinds of moves. 

Resemblance of Euros to traditional card games
In respect of few choices Euro-style games of all kinds much more resemble card games than Chess or Go.  In a card game you have a relatively small number of choices, represented by the cards in your hand.  In typical traditional card games each card can only be used for one purpose such as playing it onto a trick in Bridge.  A relatively simple boardgame like Checkers may have a similar number of plausible choices in each turn, but Chess or Go have many, many more.

In chess we have just 16 units on a side and only 64 locations on the board, but in many cases most of those units can move, and offer a variety of choices.  The vital importance of each choice-- in a top class game if you make one mistake you may be doomed-- means that a player must consider a great many choices despite the small number of units.

On the other hand Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts and Crosses) presents very few choices, which is one reason why a well played game always ends in a draw.  Checkers presents many fewer choices than Chess or Diplomacy, but a lot more than Tic-Tac-Toe.

In Diplomacy there are only 34 units in the entire game yet seven players when it starts.  Much of the richness comes from the fact that there are many players.  There is a tactical richness in the movement of the units even though there are not a large number of choices, because movement is simultaneous and deterministic (no chance is involved in conflict resolution).  The fact that there are many players and their intentions can make a big difference to what you do, means that even with a few units that can be a great many plausible choices.

For most RPG players the games tend toward the few choices and the intuitive side, which probably works better with the story style than with a wargame style.  I play RPGs as wargames and see more choices and use logic much more to decide what to do.  And I generally despise the story style because I hate not being in control of my own fate, yet in the story style the player often has to follow the story.  (To me as a player, much of the purpose in a game is to control what happens.  Stories imposed by the designer or referee don't allow this.)

Wizards of the Coast in 4th Edition D&D has changed the game to limit the number of choices, while at the same time assuring that every character has something to do every turn.  Characters have relatively few powers, but these include some that can be used every turn.

Examples from a game club
I recently had this fundamental difference between Euro-style games and wargames brought home to me once again in my primary playtest group, which is the NC State Tabletop Gamers Club.  The members of this club are college undergraduates, a few graduate students, and me.  In my experience of groups of Euro gamers (who are usually much older on the average), people play as many different games as they can and few games are played over and over.  At NC State several years ago, when the club was smaller, a lot more wargame-like games were played.  Now the members play few games that have lots of choices, and their favorite games are games with relatively few choices for the player such as Betrayal at House on the Hill, Red Dragon Inn, Dominion, and Ascension.  Boardgames seem to be played much less than in the past.  One of the more popular boardgames is a prototype race and maneuver game I’m developing that has only five or six pieces per player, and relatively few choices (only one piece moves at a time).

What immediately brought this home to me was the following episode.  One of our members likes to play Stratego, partly because she has a very good memory for pieces that have been temporarily revealed.  She had played Stratego with her boyfriend a few weeks before (and won enthusiastically), so I asked them to play a Stratego-like game that I have designed, tentatively called Solomons Campaign because it involves getting transport ships to the other side of the board in the midst of islands, submarines, surface ships, and airplanes of World War II vintage.  But Solomons Campaign is a much more fluid and much less hierarchical game then Stratego.  Immediately the young lady had some trouble with the rules.  There are many more combinations possible and not the very clear hierarchy of strength from the Marshall down to the Scout that characterizes most of Stratego.  The only departures from the strength hierarchy in Stratego are the bombs and the ability of the Spy to attack and kill the Marshall.  In Solomons submarines can sink some ships when attacking, but cannot touch others (such as destroyers).  But submarines lose to many ships and planes when attacked.  The strongest ship (battleship) can't successfully attack the subs (but is not killed when attacking).  The next strongest ship (aircraft carrier) wins when attacking a sub, but loses when attacked.  Two planes can combine together to attack, such that two bombers can exchange with a battleship. 

She was also thrown off because I believe that in a modern game people don't want to have to memorize the location of pieces, so in Solomons once a unit's identity has been revealed it stays visible; hence she didn't have the memorization advantage she felt she had in Stratego. 

She struggled setting up her pieces, because even though there are 25 pieces per player in this version of Solomons and 40 in Stratego, the hex board has many more locations (13 by 12 = 156) than the square Stratego board, and there is lots of room to set up the pieces.  In Stratego there are 92 locations and 80 pieces altogether, and you fully occupy four rows when you set up.  In other words there were vastly more setup choices in my game.  In Stratego you just don't have very many places to put your pieces, when you come down to it. 

So altogether in Stratego you have fewer choices about where to set up, and as a result of the congestion on the board you have few choices of move when you start playing--only the front six pieces  (lakes are in the way).  In Solomons each piece has six directions it can go because of the hex board, instead of four, and can move one or two hexes straight in any of those directions.  Furthermore, you can move two pieces at once if they're both airplanes.  And airplanes can move over friendly pieces.

In actual play, the Stratego lover struggled, I think because the game is very unlike Stratego in the number of choices each turn.  Other games have shown that like many people who aren't accustomed to playing wargames she is not good at figuring out strategy in wargames, so she suffered a form of analysis paralysis quite strikingly.  She just didn't know what to do strategically.  Her boyfriend is more accustomed to wargames, and he ultimately made inroads on one flank and sent a transport through to win.

Even though the game is a distant cousin of Stratego, it is much more like a strategic wargame, and so less suitable for a mass market. 

I recall one of the other members last year telling me that she did not care to play wargames because there were too many choices.  (I think it was also because there tended to be too many rules to keep track of.)  This young lady is one of the more intelligent people you would ever meet, but she plays tabletop games to relax and claimed that she relied on intuition as much as logic to make her moves.  When there were too many choices, she said, she would just “guess” (or rely wholly on intuition, I'd say).  She did play my other Stratego-like game (a space wargame, on squares, with just 19 pieces per side) and acquitted herself very well against someone who had played it three times before.  That game is in between Solomons and Stratego in the number of choices.

As it happens these two examples are females but I don't think gender has anything to do with it.  It's a matter of preferences that can turn up in males just as in females.  90% of the club members are male, yet the preference for games with fewer choices is widespread. It may be worth noting that the proportion of Euro players who are female seems to be much higher than the proportion amongst wargame players.  This is similar to the proportions of hard-core and casual players of video games who are women (much higher in casual than hard-core).  Whether this is because women are steered away from wargames when young, or “naturally” prefer fewer choices when playing games, or don’t care as much for “in your face” competition, or something else, I don't know.

There’s a formulation here somewhere involving number of significant decisions during a game (or during a given interval of playing a game) and the number of significant plausible choices per decision.  Food for further thought.

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