Decisions, Decisions.

  • July 24, 2020
  • Posted by David McCord
Post Title

“A game is not a game unless the players make meaningful decisions.”

That doesn’t mean that those decisions need to be complex or multifaceted, or have far-reaching consequences. The simple decision to roll those dice once more, drop a token onto a space, or add just one more card to your tableau can do it.

Aside from the fundamental decision to participate at all, there are a host of gambling games with no decision-making: Glückshaus (one of hundreds of dice games), Bingo (where the challenge is perception), the card game War (luck of the draw), and the dreaded L-C-R (Sorry… I just don’t get the charm of that one at all). There are hundreds of race games that are naught but roll-and-move (which were all the rage 100 years ago). Picking lotto numbers… now there’s a Gamer game! (J’employe le sarcasme.)

Assuming that you are seeking meaningful decisions in your table-top hobby, there is a wide range of decision types to consider – from the simple to the sublime.

Let’s begin with a simple roll-and-move race game. One pawn per player, one randomizer*, one linear track of 100 equally valued spaces—as close to a one-dimensional game as you can get. Each player (in turn) generates a random number, moves their pawn accordingly, and then the next player does the same. Barring the interplay of any supernatural forces, “luck” will determine the winner, and you have wasted however much time it takes to “play” this “game.”

“Wait just a minute here,” you say. “I cut my teeth on those shallow ‘Uncle Wiggley’ race games!” Yes, yes - and so have we all. (Perhaps nowadays it’s disguised as “Unicorns in Happyland” or something.) I will grant that these decision-less games have value. They teach turn-taking, and patience, and sportsmanship, and (if properly taught) taking responsibility for one’s stuff.

There is a psychology of choice that defines types of decisions (Rational, Intuitive, Cognitive) categorizing decisions by the actions and reactions they invoke, or by the level of authority that’s employed to make (and be accountable for) the decision. I’m not talking about anything so high-falootin’ as all that. I’m probably missing some important scientific stuff, but for the sake of game-playing, let’s go with this list:

Alibi 1. Strategic decisions
2. Tactical decisions
3. Pre-probability and post-probability decisions
4. Speculation (“what if”)
5. Deductive reasoning

(There are sometimes multiple factors that go into these decisions - a host of conditions, probabilities, personalities, known- and unknown-information - that I’m just going to gloss over here. I’ll boil it down to the simple illustration, and you can complicate it all you like when we’re done.)

1. Strategic decisions only make sense when the game allows for a choice in how one achieves victory. Some games (like the race game described earlier, for example) have only one path to victory: get to the end first. There can be no Gamer in that one. To have Gamer, there must be more than one path to victory, techniques and preferences to apply to one’s playing style.

Consider the ancient game of Nine Men’s Morris. A player wins by forming seven 3-point patterns on the geometric game board before his opponent can. Aside from the advantage of the opening move, players are on equal footing, all information is known. Some players focus on the opening, some on the clever herding of the opposing stones into isolation or entrapment, some on the formation of later patterns. For the really experienced player, after the first stone is placed, there are only a few (maybe one) winning Gamer to be employed. Like tic-tac-toe, the game can be “solved.”

There’s a tipping point when real strategies can come into play. The number of pieces, the features of the game board, the interplay of cards, asymmetrical powers, etc. etc. etc. More decisions and more variables means more strategic choices. And theme introduces meaning to the process - the end game counts for something. The best games (IMHO) have a “story arc” to them - the beginning, the middle, and the end - where strategic variances come into play. (A tip of the hat to Geoff Engelstein for that idea.)

Regardless of the individual moves being made, a game that accommodates Gamer will have the most depth, replayability, and passion. The players’ own personalities will be manifest in their playing style, and wits will be brought to bear.

2. Tactical decisions are more immediate, dealing with the present situation or with events directly linked to the present move or play. Tactical decisions are components of and guided by Gamer, and can be “mini-strategies” in themselves - building blocks of the bigger picture. Tactical decisions, while guided by Gamer, are often reactionary and dependent on external circumstances. Tactics are like tools in your toolbox - the implements one uses to pursue one’s strategic objectives. In games where the strategic objectives have been dictated to you, the tactics are the meat of the game, and the quality of the game will depend on the richness of its tactical decisions.

3. Pre-probability decisions are those made before some random factor is generated, or before some hidden information is revealed. For example, “I’m going to try that, let’s see if this die-roll helps or hinders that effort.” It means that you will commit to an action, then generate a non-specific outcome. (I didn’t say “random” because these outcomes are often not random at all.) This is the essence of all “push-your-luck” games, like Sid Sackson’s classic “Can’t Stop”.

Post-probability decisions are made after the non-specific outcome is revealed, as in “I have this die-roll result, I will do something with it.” For example, when playing “Sorry” (by Waddingtons, 1929) you draw your card then decide which pawn to move.

Either (or both) of these decisions can add a tremendous amount of tension and flavor to a game, in limited doses. Too much randomness ends up looking like chaos. Conversely, too much predictability can be just plain boring.

4. Speculation (and it’s cousin Resource Management) comes into play when you have something (money, property, armies, gold, territory, etc.) that has value, either at certain times within the game or at the final score. These can also be called “risk-reward” decisions. Sometimes these values can change as the game goes on, sometimes they are interdependent, and sometimes they’re just points. The key is the value, which again is often dependent on probabilities. That, after all, is what gives most games their spice. Strategies may guide resource-management decisions, and known information may guide speculative tactics.

These are also factors in a game that can make it overly complicated—not only in weighing the decisions to be made, but also in record-keeping and awareness of all the possible combinations from turn to turn. Playing one card from a hand of six is resource management—easy-peasy when you’re playing “Go Fish.” But keeping track of an entire civilization in a 12-hour marathon game of Twilight Imperium can be a real brain-burner. Just how much “resource management” is enough? That’s a matter of your preference... and your confusion threshold.

5. Deductive reasoning comes into play when you know something, and need to figure out something else. Some games are focused very heavily on this type of decision (you know who you are). In some cases, the hidden information doesn’t matter at all because it doesn’t effect your own decisions, but in others, everything rides on what your opponent knows (or doesn’t know). Mastermind (Invicta, 1972) and Code 777 (Stronghold Games and others) rely on discerning unknown information. Nuns on the Run (Mayfair, 2010) and Scotland Yard (Ravensburger, 1983) rely on hidden movement, or disguised movement, from which a player might deduce a circumstance, and therefrom his next move. Some people don’t like not knowing, or don’t enjoy the organized thinking it takes to figure out this kind of puzzle game, but others thrive on it. “The decisions are easy… but making them is not.”

Did I leave anything out? Probably. The point is that a pastime that goes beyond “play” into the realm of “game” must have a level of involvement in the game process - involvement beyond the roll-and-move mechanic and being a helpless victim to the stuff written on the space one’s pawn lands on. (Don’t we get enough of that in real life?)

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