Choice Timeframes

Reading old blog entries some of my attitudes have changed since I started writing and others remain. I’m still partial to the “Games are a series of interesting choices” school of game design. Today I wanted to talk about one way in which that leads me to look at games, both in terms of designing and playing them.

One way in which I understand games is in how many timeframes I’m considering when I make a choice.

If I’m playing Mr Game I’m really only thinking about right now. What move will my friends find amusing or interesting this turn? The way we play it the game is so chaotic any attempt to plan for next turn is utterly pointless, the rules will be too different.

If I’m playing Cube Quest I’ll be thinking about three times. Can I flick my cube to knock an opponent’s piece on the table this turn? What options will my opponent have if this goes well or badly for their next turn? Am I contributing to a long term position that will mean I win in the endgame if neither of us manages a kill shot on the king while the board is still busy?

If I’m playing Race for the Galaxy I will be thinking about at least five. Can I choose an action that lets me play something I want to this turn? Might I play something desirable by the end of this turn? Can I leave myself in a position to have a meaningfully useful turn next turn? Are the cards I have to discard to make this happen ones I’d rather keep to play in the medium turn (say sometime in the next 3ish turns)? Does this play contribute to my end game scoring? Depending on the decision and situation there might be more time frames I could usefully think in, but at around five I’m starting to run up against my cognitive limits.

If I’m playing Gloomhaven I’ll do slightly more. On a tactical level I might still be thinking in about as many times: Does this work for my next turn? What might my partner do in their next turn that will compliment/disrupt it? What might the monsters do in their turn that will disrupt it? If it works do the cards and positions I’m left with work for next turn? Do the cards I expend leave me with useful pairs until I’ve played out my hand over the next few turns or am I risking resting early to avoid a dead turn? However I find it easier to throw in an extra couple and also be considering “Is it worth a tactically suboptimal move to grab some xp for levelling up a scenario earlier?” “Is it worth a tactically suboptimal move to make progress on an objective that has to be completed over several scenarios?”

Thinking about games in this way leads me to some observations:

More levels isn’t necessarily better. I enjoy all of the games mentioned above in different contexts. It is something that defines the sort of game being played, like genre or weight, rather than a variable to be maximised.

It doesn’t matter much how far apart the levels are. In Chess the levels might literally be one move apart and I’m just describing how many turns ahead I can think (Both a a function of my limits and the extent to which the game rewards forward thinking). In a legacy game one level I’m thinking of might not matter until several months later. The distinction doesn’t matter much – thinking in several time frames does similar things to my experience of the game.

It matters a lot how finely balanced the options are. I find it interesting to wrestle with a decision of short term pain for long term gain only if they feel close enough for it to be a judgement call. The closer the choice, the more interesting the decision.

Different players will operate effectively (and have preferences for) different numbers of layers. In playtesting a player with a preference for a lower number of layers will often simply ignore the longest term one.

From a designers point of view these observations have implications:

Knowing explicitly what you want your playesr to be thinking about and making those decisions close and tense as often as possible is worthwhile.
Highlighting, indirectly, what a game expects will help it to attract the players who will most enjoy it.
A game that rewards thinking in an extra frame but is robust enough to still play well if the players aren’t can serve a larger variety of groups.
The number of frames a player can operate in are influenced by how the game presents them. Classic games like Chess and Go do well because it’s easy to improve one frame at a time and makes the distinction obvious to its players. Legacy games also do well because the deliniation of short vs long term is so critical to their function. Both have features that can be adopted in other genres

This isn’t the only way to think about games. It’s highly reductive and represents just one lens to consider a design through – but I think it’s an interesting one, both as a designer and a player.

The unhelpful hand of fate

In Wizard’s Academy I wrote a rule called the helpful hand of fate. It’s a simple rule: Whenever the rules are ambiguous the players may choose what happens. Rules like this are pretty common in cooperative games. The much lauded Gloomhaven will allow the players to choose where a monster goes when its AI generates ambiguity. This sort of rule allows the designer to cover a host of situations that emerge from more complex rule sets without needing a lot of edge case rules. They also give the players an extra decision point, which can come with the opportunity to demonstrate skill if which outcome will benefit the group is ambiguous enough.

I’ve never seen the alternative used. I cannot think of one game that uses the ‘unhelpful hand of fate’ which asks a group to pick whichever outcome will benefit the group the least.

I can imagine how a game might benefit from it. It could be used to establish an hostile atmosphere, which suits games like Dark Souls. It could narrow the difference between the high-skill and low-skill experience, as a more experienced group would more successfully identify the resolutions that would harm them the most.

I have ideas about where it might go wrong. I think players might attribute mistakes differently – in “pick the best” if someone winds up picking something that makes the game harder then at worst they’re bad at the game. Conversely in “pick the worst” if someone winds up picking something that makes the game better they might be cheating.

I suspect players judgements of themselves will be more relevant here than the judgements of others. Few players are willing to make an accusation of cheating, they are even reluctant if someone at the table flagrantly is. On the other hand relatively many players may punish themselves asking “Did I really resolve that in the manner that was worse for me or on some level did I make it move East because I knew it would work out?”

There may also be problems if it asymmetrically affects different players. If you’re picking the best then “A bad thing happens to me or to someone else” can be talked about. You can argue why it’s best for it not to hit you and how you will benefit the group. On the other hand trying to argue that you could easily deal with it and it’d be worse for it to hit the other person just seems…mean? It seems like something that might undermine the spirit of a cooperative game and group cohesion. In “pick best” confidence leads to sacrifice for the group, in “pick worst” confidence leads to saying you have to kick the less confident player when they’re down. And argue the case for that. That feels like it might be off.

That said, I have to say “I suspect” and “feels like” because I’ve never actually playtested an unhelpful hand of fate rule. Instinctively I feel like it wouldn’t work. More I feel like I’d find myself uncomfortable playing such a game, cursing the designer for not making a less ambiguous resolution method. On the other hand I’m perfectly happy playing games with the opposite rule and objectively I can’t think of a reason that picking the best should be any less difficult or ambiguous than picking the worst.

I’d be interested to know if anyone has ever heard of a game using such a rule or if anyone has ever had direct experience of playtesting one