Monday, May 17, 2021

Wargame Design: Creating Meaningful Choices


This blog frequently states as a matter-of-fact that the key of good game design is to create meaningful choices for the player.  However, less frequently do I talk about what this means as a matter of game design!  I have hints and clues about it in some of my posts about Creating Tactical Game Play, the 4Ms, Creating Hooks, Fleshing Out the 4Ms, Deployment is a Choice etc.  However, let's talk specifically about creating choice in your designs.  

To get started, we must first define what a meaningful choice is.  Choice is a decision that a player must make.  However, there are plenty of choices that do not lead to any appreciable difference in game play.  For example, if a model can choose to use a shoot action every turn, then the decision is simple what are they going to shoot.  There is really no "choice" about using the ability to shoot to actually shoot.  

Instead, a meaningful choice is a choice that has actual impacts to game play.  So, to continue the above example with the Shoot action it becomes a meaningful choice when there is an impact to the choice.  In the above example, a model can choose to shoot every turn.  However, by choosing to shoot they can not take other actions.  Now, choosing to shoot becomes a meaningful decision.  It is no longer a "no-brainer" to shoot as you will only want to shoot when there are not other actions to take.  Shoot or No-Shoot has now become a "meaningful decision" 

Meaningful Decision = Downstream Impact to the Game

Meaningful Decisions are ones that force a player to decide what is the "best course" of action based on what is happening in the game.  Choices made during the course of a game are "Tactical" decisions where choices made outside of the course of the game is a "Strategic" choice.  Ideally, Tactical and Strategic choices join in a single game system to allow for a maximum amount of choice.  Today though, we will be focusing on Tactical Choice. 

How Do You Create Meaningful Tactical Choice? 

This is the $64 Thousand dollar question.  Unfortunately, it is not a cut and dry answer.  However, the easiest way to think about it is that choices need consequences.  Consequence free choices are boring and easy to make.  There must be trade-offs.

(Positive Outcomes / Negative Impacts) + Downstream Impacts to the Game = Meaningful Choice

The Positive Outcomes are the meat of most mechanics.  You shoot someone, you engage in melee, you force them back etc.  The Negative Outcomes are not always as clear.  The Downstream Impact to the game is whatever happens actually changes how the games outcome was moving.  That is a meaningful choice. 

Positive Outcomes are straight forward, they are what the player actual wants to have happen.  It is the Negative Impacts that are harder to determine.  Here are some idea.    

1. Firepower vs Maneuver

The Futility of Realistic Weapon Ranges discusses one of the key things to think about.  You must juggle the balance between firepower and maneuver.  Where a player chooses to go must have an impact in how the game is played.  Otherwise, they will always take the shortest route to the win condition.  This is the logical course to follow, unless there are reasons not too.  

Generally, that reason is that enemy firepower will stop you from following the straightest course.  Therefore, there needs to be an interaction between how far models can move, how far weapons can fire, and how do you reduce an enemies firepower.  

Some ways to add complications is by adding terrain, adding modifiers to ranges, and/or creating areas where firepower can not be deployed due to fire arcs.  Therefore, players then need to make choices about how they will interact with these complications to achieve the objective.  

The rules will help facilitate these decisions.  For example, models with a 360 degree fire arc can see all around them.  There are no blind spots for them.  This means how you choose to face a model has no impact or repercussions.  To add tactical decisions, you can reduce their fire arc to 180 degree forward.  Now, enemies can approach in "safety" from their firepower on the flank and rear.  Now, a player has to think about and decide where to position their model to minimize the danger from an approaching enemy.  

2. Objective vs Force Capabilities

Games must have alternate win conditions besides simply killing the enemy.  Without Objectives, opponents will simply close to optimum firing range and blast away at the enemy.  There is no meaningful tactical choice in this situation.  The solution is "solved" at that point and there are no decisions, only determining outcomes.   

Objectives give forces a reason to act and react to each other.  Objectives force players to decide how best to accomplish their missions.  They normally can not just sit and wait for their enemies to wander into their line of fire.  Instead, they are forced to move towards the Objectives while avoiding the enemies actions.  You now have a situations where decisions matter. 

For example, if you need more opponents than your enemy within X distance of point A; how do you secure it?  Does your whole army move up and stand on it?  Do you send some forward to tie up your enemy from even getting to the objective?  How much of it do you send forward?

The answer to your objectives should not simply be to "kill" all your opponents on the board. 

3.  Outcomes Vs Bad Consequences

Good decisions should not be a free gimme or a "solved" issue.  Interesting choices need trade-offs and consequences.  Therefore, if you choose to do X, then that means you can not do Y.  You then need to evaluate which is better in any given situation, do you chose X or Y.  If a decision is consequence free, it is not an interesting decision.             

A consequence doesn't need to be mechanically bad, such as implying negative mods or worse probabilities.  Instead, they could also be restrictions or a requirement to test where none existed before.  These are also consequences that can apply to a decision. 

For example, in Heirs to Empire if you move your light cavalry to open order they can turn and wheel freely, but they are treated as Disordered which gives penalties in combat.  Getting into and out of Open Order requires a command point to be spent from a limited pool.  Is the ability to freely move worth the penalties?  In some situations yes, and others no.  Therefore, you have a tactical decision with consequences. 

Decisions must have consequences, both good and bad.   

4. Limitations of Action

As a commander, you simple can not do everything you want to do in a turn.  These limitations could be based on how a turn is structured, activation methods, resource management or mechanics driven.  However, no matter the method, they all make it so a commander can not just "do" whatever they want.  

Some examples: 

In Blucher, it takes Momentum Points to move.  Once you are out of Momentum Points you can no longer move your forces.  

Blood Bowl, You can act until you fail a roll.  Then play goes to your opponent, even if your team needed to do more things that possession.  

Black Ops, has models that activate only when a card is pulled for them.  Therefore, they can not always react at the best time. 

Reality's Edge, each model makes an activation check.  if passed they can do two actions, but it failed they can only do 1.

As you can see, these limits help define the game.  How you can operate within these limits dictate how you play and your tactics.  These limitations are what imposes a decision point.  Without these limitations, there would be fewer meaningful decisions in the game.  

Final Thoughts

One of the key aspects of a good game is to create decision points, but they must be Meaningful Choices.  Such choices can be viewed as a simple equation when you are building out the 4Ms or Chrome in your game.  

(Positive Outcomes / Negative Impacts) + Downstream Impacts to the Game = Meaningful Choice

Meaningful choices and decisions can not happen in a vaccum.  There must be good and bad and they must have downstream impacts for the game.  There is a simple maxim in RPGs, if rolling a dice does not add anything to the story, do not have a player roll a dice.  The same is true here.  If a decision point is not meaningful, do not leave space for a decision.  

It is not as easy as simply writing a list of things that are or are not "Meaningful Decisions" as they will vary a lot based on your game.  The above are some guidelines to get you started.  However, if you apply the simple formula to decision points in your game, you will soon be able to tell if you are creating Meaningful Choices for game play.   

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