Kind Fortress: Playful Thoughts - Meaningful Decisions
In brainstorming ideas for the Design Patterns series, I sometimes come up with topics that don’t really fit there. This new series, Playful Thoughts will be the home for design topics that aren’t examples of a pattern in game design, but also for posts about the tabletop industry as a business, and for thoughts about games as art and culture. I hope you enjoy! Let’s dive in to today’s topic.
If I had to point to one single idea that drove the Eurogames revolution and gave us modern gaming, it would be that games should force players to make meaningful decisions. The idea that player choices should have a significant impact on the game outcomes is by now a truism in both tabletop and video games.
This idea may seem self-evident, but it’s important to recognize that for a very long time, so many games had very few meaningful choices, if any. In large part, most games that didn’t involve gambling were intended for children, and often were intended to impart some moral lesson. In a way, these roll-and-move games that had no player agency whatsoever were the equivalent of today’s passive media like television. They served to engage children and drive home simple lessons, without requiring creative inputs or initiative from the participants.
It may seem heretical, then, to reconsider the importance of meaningful decisions in game design, but, similar to my skepticism about the magic circle, I’ve grown doubtful about whether meaningful decisions are as critical as design orthodoxy suggests.
Eurogames from the 90s embraced the idea of player agency to an extreme. Non-random resource allocation mechanisms like drafts and auctions predominated over rolling dice or dealing cards. Mechanisms like area majority and route-building amplified competition between players and highlighted the impacts of players’ choices. But that design aesthetic seems to have faded somewhat, or lost its sharp edges, while cooperative and low-interaction competitive games have risen to prominence in its place.
Cooperative games are what put me on the road to perdition. In Pandemic, for instance, there are configurations of the infection deck that are unwinnable, and surely you’ve heard snarky remarks about the punishing difficult of Ghost Stories. Designers are typically advised to strive for a win rate of about 50% in relatively easier co-ops, and less than that for more challenging ones.
Surely, there is nothing less meaningful than the decisions made in a game of Pandemic that is unwinnable, right? Players still enjoy those games, largely because they don’t yet know that the game is unwinnable. And perhaps, to some extent, because it’s hard, even in retrospect, to know if any given game was in fact unwinnable. But… stepping back from any given instance, the fact that the win rate for a co-op is usually narrowly banded somewhere in that 40% suggests that there’s something not especially meaningful about player choices.
Let’s not overstate the case. Clearly, there are bad choices that one can make that will obliterate your chance of victory. Using a set of five cards of the same color for anything other than curing a disease will guarantee a loss, as will refusing to treat cities with three infection cubes. These are willful examples, but more broadly, there are ways to improve at Pandemic and most other co-ops.
And yet, Pandemic is ultimately much closer to a gambling game than to a Eurogame. You can’t mitigate against all risks, and there are unknowable challenges lurking in the deck. Often, players are forced to choose which risk remediate, and which risk to take. And of course, it’s precisely those nail-biting moments, where you pray that Bogota won’t come up, that provide the emotional tension and release in the game. But it’s hard to argue that the players, in arbitrarily guessing right about which threat would not come up, have made a meaningful choice.
Or is it? In the film, The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, director Martin Scorsese portrays Judas Iscariot as a zealot who comes to see Jesus as the ideal rebel leader. He tells Jesus that he was sent to assassinate him, but now will follow him instead, and support him in everything, so long as Jesus stays on the path of rebellion. But if he should stray from that path, Judas will kill him. As the plot unfolds, Jesus eventually comes to believe that God wants him to die on the cross, and so he turns to Judas and asks Judas to betray him to the Romans.
Judas is now left with a dilemma. If he has faith in Jesus, he should listen and turn him in to the Romans for crucifixion. But if he believes that Jesus has left the path of rebellion, then he should… turn him over to the Romans for crucifixion. Surely this stands as a meaningful decision, even though only the intent is in doubt, not the outcome.
Sacred stories help us share and transmit human truths, and regardless of what your religious affiliation is, if any, this story reveals the truth that no matter what the outcomes are, our choices matter, at the very least, to ourselves, and to the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves.
This conception aligns well with the kinds of choices we make in games like Pandemic. The outcomes may not be in our control at all. Outbreaks will escalate. The Great Old Ones will break through the gates into our dimension. The hordes of zombies will overrun our position. But we enjoy the fight, and the decisions and dilemmas we confront as part of that fight. This type of meaning may have limited impacts on outcomes, but it gives us an opportunity for expressing something about ourselves.
Interestingly, the older school of Eurogames we considered above has relatively little space for that kind of expressive meaning. Those games require careful calculation, and they reward sharp tactics and strategic decision-making. Yet, even in the Eurogame space, we see a shift in aesthetic. From Stefan Feld’s point-salad Euros to the sandbox Euros like Caverna and A Feast For Odin, leading designers have created so much variety and obscured their equations with so much opacity that players can’t possibility calculate their way to victory alone. That choice incentivizes players to be more expressive: not to choose what appears to be the best strategy, but to choose a path that seems appealing to them and to try and maximize it.
In conclusion, I would seek to amend, or to expand, the definition of meaningful decisions. Rather than considering a decision meaningful because of its impacts on the outcome of a game, we should additionally consider it meaningful for how it enables players to express themselves within the game. I think this is an idea that may not be covered extensively in tabletop game design writing, but it is in full bloom in the games we see on our tables each week.