Game Theory: Make Boring Stuff Hard

While working on some game designs, I always try to figure out what the boring or easy route is through a game. This is an important step in the process because once people start playing a lot of games, someone will  happen across the simplest method to win. Some people, in fact, make this their goal–to find the game breaking strategy. There are two reasons to avoid this behavior. The first is that it gives the game more longevity, because people can’t play the game the same way every time, which gives them motivation to play again. The second is that players get an incomplete experience. You can create all of the interesting mechanics you want, but you need to motivate players to explore them.

The two reasons appear similar, but they actually focus on two different parts of the game experience. Increasing longevity applies directly to players’ interest in playing the game. You don’t want someone to feel like they have mastered the game on the first playthrough, because they won’t feel the need to buy it or share it. Whether you are interested in the money or just in having people play your game, this is bad. This is probably the true meaning of “breaking” a game. Not simply finding a loophole or unbeatable strategy, but breaking the experience. Instead, if players constantly feel like they haven’t found the “right” path, then they will want to return to it. This translates into more players, more games, and more fun.

It’s very important to point out that the longevity is only tangentially about variety in play. Consider the case where the variety comes from complex interactions of a specific mechanic (as in The Speicherstadt, for example). If it is possible for players to play the game without participating in the interaction, they don’t experience the same depth of game. To put it more succinctly, if one out of five strategies is simple to execute, adding another ten strategic options doesn’t increase the “variety” in the game, or solve the problem. You need to make sure the boring option isn’t also the easiest.

Dominion is a great example of how to fix a “broken” boring strategy. Players quickly found that a “Big Money” strategy that ignores most of the interesting cards was almost always effective in the base game. Later expansions added more interesting options and entirely new ways to build and manipulate decks. Although there are several “classes” of strategy that are now as well defined as the original, figuring out which one is the right one for a given circumstance and then actually achieving it is what keeps the game interesting.

The incomplete experience is more about what you do as a designer. I have played games that  included very interesting mechanics that never got used–games that actively steer players away from the interesting mechanics. As a result, the games go on my shelf to be forgotten and unplayed. This is important from the design end because setting up artificial test cases is a good way to see if a specific mechanic works, but it won’t tell you if that state is likely to be reached in a normal game. You need to consider not just whether a mechanic works, but also whether it will be used. This can be a subtle wrench in the gears of your game.

This can impact balance, too. If the game has some balancing measures built in between the different strategies, but all the players choose the same strategy, then the balance is effectively missing. If the single effective strategy is based around random factors, luck becomes the driver of who will win.

So what exactly do I mean by make the boring stuff hard? The general idea is that you don’t have to completely eliminate simple strategies, you just have to guide players down more interesting path.

Sometimes this is as easy as limiting how frequently a player can perform the same action, (say, once a round at most) so players are forced to take at least one alternate path. This can also be partially implemented by making the cost to repeat an action increase, which does not forbid the player from taking a simple path, but makes it less appealing.

Providing mutually exclusive non-repeatable actions is another way to approach this. In Carcassonne sometimes you want a road and get a city, so you are forced to place a tile somewhere new.

You can also add interaction to enlist the the players to prevent simple strategies. Building all of the science would be an overly simple path to victory in 7 Wonders, if other players couldn’t immediately detect the strategy and work together to thwart it.

Add benefits to branching out into multiple categories. Agricola attempts this by giving negative points in empty scoring categories. Although game results are the same if all categories were just increased by 1 point, there is a psychological effect of encouraging players to try different things.

Adding complexity to the game is not often a desirable approach, but some games can execute it successfully. Agricola’s accomplishes this very well, real strength against boring strategies is the added complexity. The large number of varying and unique approaches from improvements and occupations means that no approach is simple.

Hiding information in the game is also a very effective way of making a boring strategy harder and more interesting. This can be done by adding random factors, so you don’t know how effective each action will be. It can also be done with secret goals, so you don’t know until the end which approaches will be valuable.

In New Bedford, I had to address this with the wood/lumber mill strategy. It is possible to play through the game doing nothing but taking wood and using the lumber mill to earn points from money. This is not a very interesting way to play, but can give you a competitive final score. But it really only works if you can get the bonus from the forest in every turn. The interaction in New Bedford makes this boring strategy hard, because others can beat you to the forest bonus, lock you out of the lumber mill, and ignoring the rest of the actions makes other players’ actions more effective.

Remember: “because it’s boring” won’t stop players from following a strategy. Nobody wants to play a game that is boring, but if boring is easy, people will take the path of least resistance. And once people know about such a strategy, the temptation to use it will always be lurking around the corner. It doesn’t have to come from a desire to ruin the game, which is an interesting topic in itself (See these two posts by Grant Rodiek on the problem and some solutions)

It is always a trick for a designer to come up with a game that stays interesting. This is the goal not only to bring players back for more games, but to have them experience the fullness of your design on each play. It often is hard for a designer to look at the boring parts of the game, because they are aware of all of the interesting parts. So I say “Don’t ignore the boring parts of your game” because players definitely won’t. Instead, guide the players to an interesting experience by working extra hard to make the boring parts hard to do. It may not be as interesting for the designer, and you might never get an ounce of thanks from a player. But it is the job of the designer to work hard on the boring stuff, so that it’s easy for the players to have fun.

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