Sunday, November 13, 2011

False Decisions and Distracting Decisions

Lately I've been thinking a bit about False Decisions and something similar which I've been referring to as Distracting Decisions.

False Decisions
False Decisions in a game are choices presented to the player which are so one-sided that there is really only one decision worth making. Any other choice is a red herring, or is simply so worthless that anyone who knows what they're doing would not take that option. These act as traps for new players who haven't learned about them yet, and they act as unnecessary time sinks as players. I view False Decisions as a design flaw - I prefer choices in a game to all be viable, or at least situationally viable. However I know at least 1 friend thinks differently - that red herrings are good to have, and that they are traps for new players acts as a test of skill at the game. As you get better at the game, you don't fall into those traps, and therefore you win against someone who does. While I see that as a valid idea, I still prefer choices to be viable depending on your situation, and I think False Decisions should be avoided in design.

Distracting Decisions
The new idea that I've been pondering is the idea of Distracting Decisions, which I'll define as being options presented to a player that do matter, but are redundant, or are not related strongly enough to the player's focus in the game. I'm not sure if I'm really putting this into words well enough, but the idea is that as I design, I want the players' focus to be on decisions that matter and directly relate to the fundamental problem of the game. If I present the player with a decision that is unrelated with the fundamental problem, or which is redundant to decisions they've already made, then I'm just wasting their time and effort. Does that make sense?

While one could argue that False Decisions are not a terrible thing, or even that they are desirable in a game; I certainly think that Distracting Decisions should be avoided. I suppose someone could disagree with that for the same reason they like to see False Decisions in a game though.

Example of a Distracting Decision
By way of example, I'm working on developing a game right now in which the player chooses one of several colors of dice each turn to add to his supply, and then faces a challenge which requires rolling some subset of dice. So one reason to choose one die over another is because you want to roll that color die in later challenges. That alone is kind of boring, so there's another reason you might want to choose 1 die color over another - the dice offer some benefit or ability based on their color, and that ability is stronger if you have more dice of that color in your supply.

The previous version of this game represented these abilities as a "Dice Action" you could do on your turn, in addition to picking up a die and facing a challenge. You could only choose 1 Die Action per turn, and the color you chose would then not be available to roll when facing a challenge. I believe that this Die Action introduced a Distracting Decision... the player has already been asked to consider the benefit of the die color when choosing which die to pick up. Asking them to choose between the 5 die actions each turn, and then further restricting that choice by saying they can't use those dice for a challenge serves to belittle the choice they made in the first place. In effect, you don't always get the benefit of the die action, while you do always get to roll the color you want, so the choice when drafting a die is too heavily weighted toward the challenge aspect and the benefit of the action is too unreliable or useless. Kinda like in Quarriors, when you roll your high cost creature die and come up with 1 Quiddity - the fact that you cannot count on the die behaving as advertised is a real downer for me in that game, and it's the same thing here. The decision on which action to use should already have been made when the die was chosen, and the player should not be faced with that again.

As such, the new version of the game, which is yet to be tested, but I highly expect to be an improvement, does not feature Die Actions. Instead, the number of dice you have in each color directly affects the actions you already take in the game (moving, choosing a die, facing a challenge). Since they're "always on" - these abilities will matter more, and the player won't be distracted by being asked which ability they want to use this turn. I think this will add weight to the die ability when a player chooses which die to pick up.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on both of these topics:

False Decisions - what exactly are they, and are they good or bad to include them in a game design?

Distracting Decisions - are they different from False Decisions? Should they be avoided in game design?


Clive said...

Would you give an example of a false decision in an existing game?

Anonymous said...

At what point does (or can) a Distracting Decision turn into a False Decision?

Is there any point where a player becomes so knowledgeable about the game that there ARE no Distracting decisions, only False ones? If so, do you consider that a mark of a bad game (that this is possible) or a good game *that a player wants to play it to the extent that he/she deduces the outcomes of all the decisions)

Seth Jaffee said...

Good questions!

An example of a false decision could be the action in Notre Dame which gives you either a Coin, a Cube, or kills a rat. That's generally considered a terrible space and only useful in an emergency (f you absolutely need a coin or cube). However I suspect that space was not intended to be terrible, it looks to me like that was supposed to be a viable space, and in practice it just isn't good enough.

Similarly, the University in Puerto Rico is generally considered not to be worth it, but I don't think it was intended to be a red herring.

I'm not sure if I'm aware of any 'distracting decisions' off the top of my head, I was mostly noticing it in the game I was working on.

I played Trajan last week at BGG.con, and while I like the game, I wonder if the color combos on the Trajan tiles aren't a bit of a distracting decision. The Rond-cala mechanism is neat, but it's obscure enough already that trying to concentrate on the color matching seems to really distract from pursuing your strategy. This is not a false decision, because going after those Trajan tiles is valid and useful, but I wonder if it isn't a bit distracting.

I do not think Distracting decisions turn into False decisions, rather I think they're 2 different things.

Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Clive said...

I think the space in Notre Dame - like the fishing pond in Agricola - is a bail out option. While it might be a false decision to use as part of a sound strategy, if for some reason you screw up you can bail yourself out by getting food from the fishing pond...consider it a safety net. However, I definitely see your point.

Nolan said...

Would you limit false decisions to decisions that are always, not situationally, wrong?

For example, say there is a particular setup of Dominion cards where one card is always the worst card to buy. In a different setup, that card might be one of the best cards to buy. Hence, a false decision was not designed into the game, but emerged from a particular combination.

I guess my point is that situational or emergent false decisions aren't bad. Allowing the player to use their knowledge of the game to recognize a decision that is a trap in some cases but perfectly viable in another is good design.

I don't like false decisions that are always wrong. Each option should have a time when it's viable. If not, it becomes worthless if all players playing the game are experienced enough to recognize it. Why have a part of the game that is worthless?

The concept of distracting decisions is interesting. I'll definitely be on the lookout for such decisions to get a better feel for how and why the appear.

Seth Jaffee said...

@Nolan: Good point - if the decision is only false due to some setup (like in Dominion) then that's not really a bad thing. Dominion is all about identifying which cards to buy (and in which combination) based on the setup. There may be cards that are just better or just worse than others, but buying them isn't necessarily bad, depending on what else is in play.

So no, I wouldn't call any decision points in Dominion "False" - even if I might think certain cards are just never (or super rarely) worth buying.