Sunday, November 06, 2011

Why Deckbuilders seem to "play themselves"

I've read many comments about deck building games (and here I generally refer to "Dominion games") suggesting that the decisions in the game are automatic, or that the game plays itself.

I think these comments are naive, off-base, and generally are a result of players thinking that the main decision points in the game happen as the cards are being played turn by turn. This is simply not the way deck building games (or Dominion games) work. The main decision points in Dominion are not which cards to play each turn, or what order to play them in... the main decisions in the game are which cards to add to your deck.

One major aspect that makes the deck building work is that early game decisions have a lasting impact on your game. The decision to buy that Silver on turn 1 instead of that Village (for example) will manifest over and over every time you draw that card. The sum total of these decisions (which cards you buy) combine to produce hands which, sure, play themselves to an extent. The point is that playing out a hand is the resolution of the decision, not the decision point itself.

When playing Puerto Rico, when you decide to choose the Trader you've made a meaningful decision. the fact that it seems really obvious which of your goods to trade (most of the time it's the one that will get you the most money, though occasionally complicated by things like which goods are on boats) doesn't mean the game plays itself - I think that's pretty obvious. However, when it comes to Dominion, I think people see the action as the playing of the cards, and therefore expect that to be the decision point.

So that's my theory on why some players think games like Dominion play themselves.


Jeff said...

I think I can see why this could be a complaint; even if the long-range decisions inform or influence the short-term decisions directly or indirectly, if the short-term decisions are obvious, and if you spend most of the game making the short-term decisions, then the game won't really create the sense of agonizing decisions that many players find enjoyable. Imagine a trick-taking game where the composition of your hand is determined by a draft phase, for example. Sure, the drafting creates a strategic layer, but if the bulk of the play is the trick-taking phase, and the plays are generally pretty obvious, then the idea that you already got to make your decisions and now you have to see them play out may be unsatisfying.

And that's not to say it's always bad to have a strategic layer where you set things in motion and then a resolution phase where things happen deterministically -- militaristic games have this, of course. But the complaint here probably pertains to the perception that, if given a hand of cards and told to use them how you will, the game is not deterministic -- you're supposed to be making decisions to affect your destiny. So it may feel like false strategy (or false tactics, I guess?).

Michael Keller said...

By the time I gave up Dominion, it was autoplay for me. Not because of playing the cards is straightforward, but because after doing multiple sessions where a friend and I would play through every card in the game, 10 cards at a time, in a single night, the card buying decisions themselves became routine. Realistically, there's usually only two or three cards under consideration on most hands. Add in to that that a third of the cards on the table any given game will not be bought even once by either player, and it quickly becomes a game without much thought required. By the end, an average game had at most one or two interesting decision points (ie. I've got 8 for the first time, is it to early to go for points?).