One of my key elements of a game is an interesting and meaningful choice. As I continue to play and design games, I have started to see that not all choices are equal. I don’t just mean that some choices are big and some are small, or that some are hard and others are easy, although these are subjects worth discussing. The subject of what makes a choice interesting is very subtle, though. Many things can lead to choices that aren’t interesting, and I think it’s useful to identify some of them and see how they impact the choices in a game.
Choices are made meaningful by their consequences, but choices are made interesting by their options. So when designing a game, special consideration must be given to how players evaluate those options. One of the most basic questions to ask is whether players will be able to evaluate their options at all. This may seem like an obvious question, but it can be subtle at times.
If players have no way of determining the potential value before making a choice, then it is effectively random. Notice that the players merely need to determine the potential value, not the actual value. Placing settlements on more productive locations in Catan doesn’t allow the player to know what will roll, but players can still use the probability to evaluate each option.
But it is not simply the absolute value that is important. Relative value is even more important. If all of the options available to the player have the exact same value, the player is in no better of a position. Here, the player can evaluate the options, but not differentiate between them, and yet again has no way of choosing. This is a case of Buridan’s Ass, which I summarize as a donkey between two perfectly equal haystacks, staring straight ahead will have no way to “choose” between them.
A third related problem is when players can evaluate the options, and one is more valuable than the rest. While this seems like it gives players the ability to choose, it. would be silly to choose the option that is less valuable. But this is by definition a consequence of knowing the value of the options.
Where, then does this leave a game in terms of choice, if you can’t choose between options with equal value, different value, or unknown value? True choices come from mixing these. Returning to Catan, a frequent choice is which settlement to upgrade to a city. Part of the value is equal: you get an additional point for the same resources in either case. Part of the value is different but calculable: locations provide different resources. And as mentioned before, part of the value is unknown: how many and which resources will actually be produced. The player must choose which factors are most important.
And this is my real understanding of a choice: a selection is merely evaluating options, an interesting choice is deciding what factors are important in evaluation. Choice is a question of focus, and evaluation is a mechanical consequence of that underlying decision. Once the focus has been decided (by the player, or by consequences of the game) the choice becomes an act of calculation.
There is still value in giving the player options for selection, and that is in building engagement. When the values are equal, the choice is a matter of preference. The player creates something that reflects themselves which is not dictated by arbitrary circumstance in the game. When the values are different, the selection is a comparison. Taken too far, the game can feel like it is playing itself, but in the right amounts it can feel like a payoff for good planning. It can also serve to speed up the game, keeping players engaged. And finally, selection of unknown values is a guess that can bring a lot of enjoyment and engagement. An exciting roll of the die, turn of the card, or other random factor can give players a rush, even without a choice involved. But it lets players build their own story.
For me, the level of choice is one of the most important factors when I design or play a game. I want to enjoy the process of making a choice. Some games take a lot of that fun away by making false choices that are actually just preferences, comparisons, or guesses. But interesting choices make the player decide what factors are important in their decision. There are a lot of things that go into those factors, but I will choose to focus on those in a different article.