Meaningful Choice in Game Design

I still haven’t played Frostgrave yet because I’ve been more of a poser than an actual gamer lately, trying to keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry, putting in time on this blog, but not getting to actually play many games. (In fairness, I’m also spending as much time as I can on a gaming-related side project… coming SOON). Frostgrave is definitely near the top of the list of new games I want to try.

I’ve read the rules, and they seem pretty solid, and I definitely dig the D&D vibe it has going on. One thing that raises a flag in my mind, however, is allowing apprentices to be optional. The rules pretty much say that taking an apprentice is always the optimal choice over spending an equivalent amount of gold on soldiers. Given that the optimal choice clear, it seems pointless to make it a choice at all. However, since I haven’t actually played the game yet, I’ll refrain from taking a definitive stance on this point, but it does lead to a broader topic.

 

Meaningful Choice in Game Design

Choices are what makes a game a game. This is such a defining feature that games such as Candyland, “War” (that silly card game we all played as kids), and BINGO are not really games at all; rather they are programmed systems that you run to find out what the outcome is. In all three examples, the programming is the order that that the cards end up in after shuffling or the order that the BINGO numbers are called. Ask yourself: is there anything that the player can do in any of these games that will have an effect on the outcome? (I suppose if you introduce the element of gambling into BINGO, then it qualifies as a game since you have to decide how much to wager or how many boards to play, but, not being a blue-haired old lady, my experience of playing BINGO competitively is nonexistent. Also, I don’t intend to diminish the value of Candyland for teaching kids some of the basic structures of games and preparing them for better games down the road.)

An essential feature of good game design is meaningful choices. Choices are what makes a game, but interesting choices that have a meaningful impact on the outcome of the game are part of what makes a good game. One obscure example that stands out to me (and here, I will draw on my experience of a game that I have actually played to make my point!) was a piece of equipment from an early version of Reaper’s tabletop miniatures game, Warlord. Whether or not you’ve ever heard of this game isn’t really important – but props to you if you have heard of it, and more still if you’ve ever played this fun game which never became as popular as it deserved to be!

In Warlord, there was a 10-point piece of equipment known as “Divine Favor.” To give you a sense of what 10 points in this game means, 1,000  – 1,500 points were the most common game sizes during this time (meaning that Divine Favor would account for 1% of your army’s value, at most). There was a spell called “Bandage” which also cost 10 points. Using Divine Favor or Bandage resulted in similar outcomes, which on the surface made their identical point costs seem to make sense, but here are a few other facts:

  • Divine Favor was a one-shot item that automatically negated (negated, not healed) the first point of damage the model equipped with it took, after which it was used up.
  • Bandage would heal a point of damage to one friendly unit, but required a spellcaster to successfully make a casting roll. This also incurred the opportunity cost of using an action to cast it.
  • Divine Favor could be equipped on any model, chosen before the game started.
  • Bandage could be cast on any model, as long as it was within range of the spellcaster.
  • Divine Favor was unique (only one per army).
  • Multiple copies of Bandage could be purchased by the same army.

The details for successfully casting a Bandage spell made it an interesting part of army-building – a meaningful choice about how to spend your points. Perhaps those points you’re thinking of spending on casters and Bandage spells would be better spent on making your units harder to damage rather than healing them afterwards, or on offensive capabilities so they have a better chance of killing enemy units before being damaged themselves?

Rather than buying a Bandage spell, you could spend the same amount of points on an item that would accomplish the same thing, only better –no action or casting roll required! Divine Favor was clearly the optimal choice for your first 10 points, and a decision where the optimal choice is clear is not a meaningful one.

The only question was on which model to equip Divine Favor, but it would invariably be an important, powerful model; 10 points spent on making your warlord or hero that much tougher to kill was a much better use than giving it to a lowly foot soldier. For example, an average Warlord might cost 160 points and be able to take four points of damage before being killed, which works out to 40 points per damage track (Warlord’s term for “hit points,” basically). Why would you not spend 10 points to essentially add another DT to one of your most important units? One fairly unique aspect of Warlord that makes those 10 points even more valuable is that models’ stats degrade as they take damage; so keeping a model damage-free a little bit longer, as Divine Favor does, is much more valuable than merely keeping it alive but with lots of damage.

In order for the question of whether or not to take Divine Favor to be a meaningful choice, it should probably have cost somewhere between 25-35 points – more than Bandage, but still cheap enough to always be tempting; probably a worthwhile choice in most situations, but not clearly the optimal one. Alternatively, another solution would have been to make it a “free” piece of equipment that everyone got, skipping the first no-brainer decision and going right to determining how best to use it. I think the best solution is what Reaper ultimately decided to do, which was to remove Divine Favor from later editions of Warlord.

One of my favorite examples of tightening of game design based on the elimination of sub-optimal choices is from Warcraft 2. In the early release of the game, most custom scenarios for online matches started you with a set amount of gold and a single peasant with which to construct your base. Given that a town hall was required in order to recruit more peasants to collect more gold to ultimately build the rest of your town and recruit your army, the town hall was the optimal choice for the first building constructed. This meant that the first two minutes of every match were spent sitting around waiting for your town hall to finish building. It appears that Blizzard realized this, as in later releases of the game , you would start online matches with your town hall already built. This was standard procedure by the time Warcraft 3 was released, and in that game, every race started with their version of the town hall and five workers. (Undead were the exception, starting with three cultists and a ghoul. This resulted both from and in other interesting game mechanics, but that’s going too far down the rabbit hole for this post.)

To reference an oft-used quote from Antoione de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Meaningful choices make games fun; forcing a player to make a “choice” where the optimal decision is clear is tedious and unnecessary – a chore, not something fun. A great game must have interesting, meaningful choices at the core of its mechanics, and paring down unnecessary decisions certainly helps towards this end.  But there is more to creating a great game than solid, streamlined mechanics.