Meaningful Choices and Space of Possibility in Board Games:
In this article I will try to explore a bit of game design theory behind the choices in games, and how important is choice to make good games, in special good board games. (Yet most of the discussion will be useful for any kind of game design)
First, we need to understand what choice means in game design terms, for James Portnow from Extra Credits[i] “A choice is any moment during play that the player could perform two or more distinct actions but has to pick some number of actions less than the total number of available to execute.”, for him, choice can happen either inside the mechanics of the game or in the narrative context of it. He also points out that a choice is not a calculation, because If there is a definitive right answer that can be ascertained by either logic or mathematics, there is not really a choice to be made.
Jon Back’s, from Jon Back’s Creative Geek YouTube Channel[ii], points out that for choice to exist, you need information, as a complete lack of information about the consequences of your choice collapse the idea of choice into just randomness. On the other side, having complete information about the consequences of your choice creates a situation where one of the possible choices will be recognized as the right one, thus again creating a situation where there is no real choice to be made. It is when you have some information and some hidden aspects at the same time, that you need to start thinking.
This is what creates meaningful choice. As James Portnow clarifies: “A choice is meaningful when the decision-making process is not arbitrary.”. For James, the player must have ways to weight in their options. They don’t need to know the full consequences of it, but they need to believe that they have something to base their decision on and that there will be future consequences based on their choice.
The careful crafting of player experience through a system of interaction is critical to the design of meaningful play. Yet, just what makes an interactive experience "meaningful"? We have argued that in order to create instances of meaningful play, experience has to incorporate not just explicit interactivity, but meaningful choice. - Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play - Game Design Fundamentals[iv]
The importance of meaningful choice is so great that some designers even define games based on the existence of meaningful choices. As Dave Eng. EdD[v] writes on his article for universityxp.com, he sees that “A more serious definition of games is that they are a collection of meaningful choices.”. Others like Chris Bateman[vi] argues that games like Guitar Hero, or similar games, do not rely on meaningful choices, as the right or wrong answers are obvious and clear on the screen, there are no decisions to be made, and yet they are great games. (In fact, those games rely on skill checks, another designer tool in the designer's toolbox to create feeling of agency.)
In board games, one example would be dexterity-based games. Yet you can argue that the feeling when playing such games, be it Guitar Hero, or Pitch Car, is that you are making choices, trying and learning, as much as when you do actual strategical choices. The common and important factor here is agency. Meaningful choices or tests of specific skills both give you the feeling of agency that is important for engaging gameplay.
Because most board games rely less on real-time, dexterity, or other physical skills, most often games will heavily depend on meaningful choice alone to create agency. Games like League of legends will give the feeling of agency both by presenting choices, like where to go with your character, what items to buy, what skills to learn first, and by testing your reflexes with fast movements in combat, skill-shots, and fast-paced real-time conflict with other players. Most board games are turn-based and rely on game mechanics that promote choice above anything else, thus the even greater importance of meaningful choice for board game design.
When a player makes a choice in a game, the system responds in some way. The relationship between the player's choice and the system's response is one way to characterize the depth and quality of interaction. - Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman[vii]
So, a great board game would be the one with the greatest number of meaningful choices? No. As Jon Back[viii] points out, too many choices lead to the famous analysis paralysis, making the game slow and boring. Also by adding too many choices, the designer increases the risk of creating a dominant strategy, a choice, strategy or sequence of choices that is overall better than any other possible on the game. When a game has a dominant strategy, most often, all the meaningful choices are lost as there is now a right answer about how to play.
Dave Eng, EdD[ix] explains that in most games, players are offered a few selections of interesting possible choices because adding too many choices could be paralyzing, while a good and small selection of meaningful choices can be key for players to have the feeling of agency in the game.
As James Portnow[x] clarify, a particular game just needs to have enough meaningful choice to provide a feeling of agency, that your actions matter. It is not that more choice is inherently better. Choice must be used appropriately on game design, and the amount of choice can be perfectly tuned to the amount needed for a certain part or aspect of a game. What the designer should be asking himself is: “Does this game give me enough choice to make me feel like my actions matter?”.
There are two traps to be avoided when creating the choices for your game, first, avoiding creating meaningless choices, either by creating choices with consequences that are too similar, or choices that have very little or no impact further during the game, as those will make players lose the sense of agency, and second, avoiding making the choices either complex or too obvious. Making them too complex will cause analysis paralysis and can make the player feel like they don’t have enough information to make a distinction between so many different possible choices, and making it too obvious will cause the right choice to be easily seen, creating a dominant strategy that will remove the player's feeling of agency.
But why agency and choice are so important? For Brice Morrison from gamasutra.com[xi], what makes a game into art are “Choices that pull at players heartstrings, that make them look deep inside themselves at their own character in real life, that they remember as deeply emotional experiences.”. For James Portnow games are about choice because those choices talk about ourselves, it’s the agency that is absent from other media of entertainment.
Yet, sometimes instead of meaningful choice, designers use the “trick” of creating illusions of choice, a tool that James Portnow[xii] sees as very important to game design if used correctly. But he points out that illusion of choice only works when the player cannot distinguish it from actual meaningful ones. When that illusion works, it is as powerful an addition to the game as actual meaningful choices.
The illusion of choice happens when you make the player believe that there are consequences for the choices they made, even if in the actual gameplay there is no real difference of outcome between the possible choices that were offered. Some point salad board games use this tool well, hiding choices that are mechanically and consequentially identical, but masqueraded with different flavor or themes to feel distinct. Yet the illusion of choice must be used with care, as players will dislike it if they ever perceive that, in fact, their choice was meaningless. But if well used, it promotes agency, without causing game unbalance, and without the requirement of creating more content. It is important for story-heavy games, and games with campaigns, because there is a limited amount of resources you can expend on development. In the case of story-driven board games, the limited number of components plus the need to give players the feeling of having as much agency on the story as possible without actually creating so many branches that it becomes inviable to develop or produce often requires well-implemented illusion of choice. (Board Games like 7th Continents, Gloomhaven and This War of Mine all uses illusion of choice to some extent.)
But then, what is required to create meaningful choice?
For Brice Morrison[xiii] there are four important components: Awareness, Gameplay Consequences, Reminders, and Permanence.
For him, the player must be aware that it is making a choice at all, and the choice needs to be clear for him (awareness), the consequences of choices must affect both gameplay mechanics as well as aesthetic factors (gameplay consequences), for example; A new sword should look different, but it also should play different in the rules, like doing more damage then your old one. The game must remind the player of past choices and the consequence of those choices (reminders), as without that there is no pride or regret on the choice and thus no meaning. In board games, this happens when, for example, you regret not building on a certain space on Terra Mystica because later in the game you were unable to connect your structures because you lacked a building on that specific space. And finally, the game must not allow the player to undo the choices made after seen its consequences (permanence). That is why on most board games you cannot go back on your actions, as doing so would make the choice meaningless.
Dave Eng, EdD[xiv] synthesize the four components as:
“Awareness: the player has to know that a choice can be made.”
“Consequences: the player’s choice has to be accurately represented in the game”
“Reminders: the player has to be reminded of the choice after they make it”
“Permanence: the player cannot go back and undo their choice (after seeing its effects)”
Yet for Dave, you also need to consider connected empathy, player agency, restriction, balance, choice construction, and strategy, to have meaningful choice.
For him, it is important that players feel invested in the game by having emotional connections with the choices made. Character creation, storyline, structures, when decided by the player makes the whole game meaningful, even when it’s just aesthetic choices.
For Dave player agency goes from aesthetic choices to narrative ones. But, for him, it’s important to take balance and restrictions into account as he sees that having too many choices could be overwhelming, so the amount of choices and restrictions needs to be balanced. The choice construction by the designer, for him, must involve showing to the player the possible outcomes of each choice and their risks and rewards. Choices then are about giving the player a greater sense of power, and a “well-designed choice should have consequences that affect both the look and aesthetics of the game as well as consequences for player interaction and gameplay.”. Yet he sees that even with a well-constructed game, with well-constructed choices, you will still need to see the player actions and the development of player strategies to look for dominant ones and them truly balance the game.
Daniel Doan[xv] defines dominant strategy as the cases when “choices are offered but there’s a reason to massively bias picking one over the others.”. For him, it’s in the best interest of the designer to balance out the options once a dominant strategy is found, to restore meaningful choice to the game.
“This can cause the developer to worry due to being unfamiliar with the play-style of their own game after all of this refinement, but instead developers should be celebrating since their game is improved as a whole due to the return of meaningful choice to the game.” – Daniel Doan
Another interesting aspect of choice is bought up by the Designer Director of League of Legends game, Andrei van Roon “RiotMeddler”[xvi], as he brings a series of dualities about how to construct choices in game design.
He shows us that choices can be single or constant, where single choices are the ones that will have a large influence on the gameplay, like the choice of a faction on Terra Mystica, or the decision of building an early stronghold on the same game. They are single choices that decide entire strategies, while the constant choices are the smaller ones, that happen during the entire game, that alone does not have a big impact, but stacks along the game to bring victory or defeat, for example, the choice of action on each round of Race for the Galaxies.
He also distinguishes Windowed from Always Available choices, were the windowed refers to choices that can only be used on specific windows of opportunity, like for example on Arcadia Quest, if you use an action potion or wait for a better opportunity to try to snatch a quest under the nose of the other players with your double actions. And always available ones are the choices that are frequently there and are not only useful or possible on specific key moments. Because widowed choices depend on opportunity, it is often interesting as a design that they have more weight.
And finally, Strategic versus Tactical choices, where strategic choices are the long-term decisions that act as a plan for how to win the game. For example, the choice to build a dwelling or upgrade an existing one to a Trading House, you want to produce more workers or more gold on the next round? While the Tactical choice is related to the in-the-moment decision and most often involves interaction with other players. For example, should I terraform and build a dwelling on this space to block one of my opponents' routes of expansion, or should I do it on this other space to have access to the river?
James Portnow[xvii] brings another categorization of choices that we should consider, a distinction from games focused on the process of choosing and games focused on the consequences of choice.
If the focus of a game is on the process of choosing, then the most important moment of the choice process is when the player is pondering what choice to take. If the game is focused on the consequences of choice, the moment of pondering comes later when the consequences of the choice manifest themselves.
“Games about choice and games about consequences manly differs by when they get the player to think about the action that causes the ultimate result.” – James Portnow, Extra Credits
This makes for an interesting thought, as it's possible for a choice to be meaningful, but only be perceived as meaningful when the player sees the consequences of it. Yet we need to remember that it is still important that by the time the choice was being made by the player, it had enough information to feel like the choice was not arbitrary, else the meaning of the consequence is lost because the choice does not feel like a choice at all.
Jesse Schell, in the book Art of Game Design: A Book of Lens[xviii], adds a last piece for our groundwork of categories of choices, as he describes what he calls triangularity, a kind of choice that includes risk, where the player can play safe for a small reward, or take a big risk for a big reward. For him, this is a great kind of choice to have on games if properly balanced because it is a hard decision to make that appears on many games. In his opinion it is so powerful as a kind of meaningful choice that it alone can make a monotonous game turn into an exciting one if you just add enough triangularity to it.
A series of questions that can help a game designer better understand how to improve the choices of their games, or a game enthusiast to better analyze the choices of the games he plays, can be found in two books that were presented here before, Jesse Schell “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lens”, and Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman “Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals”. Reading both is a recommendation, but I will try to summarize and add some of the reflections we already made in this article to create a new and consolidated list:
What choices are given to the players?
What happened after the player was given the choice? What was the state of the game?
How is the choice presented to the player? Could it be made clearer?
How the player input or show his choice? Isn’t there a better method?
Are the different choices correctly balanced? No strategies are dominant?
Is the choice single or constant? Widowed or Always available? Strategic or Tactical? Is it correctly balanced for its kind?
Does the choice involve risk? Does it promote triangularity? Would adding small rewards for safe choices and big rewards for risky choices improve the game?
Is it meaningful? It follows the concepts of awareness, consequences, reminders, and permanence?
Is the number of choices given right? Would more choices empower the player? Or are the number of choices currently overwhelming? Are the players facing analysis paralysis?
What are the immediate results of the choice? And how the choice will affect future choices?
How is the result of the choice conveyed to the player? Is this result making the choice meaningful? Is the consequence a cause of pondering to the player?
Is the choice promoting a connected empathy for the player, or it breaks immersion?
With these twelve questions as a guide, it should become easier to analyze and better understand the choices that are present in any game, be it a board game, or a digital one.
Yet this analysis is still mostly framed into looking at one group of choices at a time. To better understand a game as a whole we need to go a step further and see how those different choices intertwined and become part of the “space of possibility”.
Again, we must resort to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's expertise and rely on the Rules of Play[xix] book to better understand this concept. They define space of possibility as “the space of future action implied by a game design”, being the space of all possible actions and meanings which can take place or emerge from the game, it connects the designed structure of the game and the actual player experience, as well as all the key concepts of game design. It is a space, as well as a system, that is interactive and generates meaning. It is created by the rules and structures of the game and is the place where players will explore, interact, compete and/or cooperate, as they play. Yet it can only be indirectly designed, as the game designer can only make the rules of the game, and not precisely control how the players will interact with it, and it is only in this interaction between the players and the rules and structures of the game that the space of possibility gains its shape.
Yet by looking at the space of possibility within a game you can then see not only how an specific choice fares with the players, but how the entire structure of the game feels, and how the different choices presented to the players, and the interactions between the results of the different available choices emerge as a space of possibility, and how the players see their overall possibilities during the act of playing the game.
It's important that we look here not as an external viewer, but we take the consideration of the point of view of each player in the game. We should try to understand how each of them sees the space of possibilities they are inserted in the game. The players will most often not have the technical point of view we are here making use of, but the space of possibility is nothing more than the perceived possible actions, choices and interactions that the player can see when playing the game. (It is an interesting thought that we must consider: A choice that is not noticed by the player is a choice at all? What matters for the game is the actual space of possibility as seen and enacted by the players, and that is why a designer cannot really create it, only indirectly influence it by designing the rules and the structures of the game.)
This lead us to another game designer thoughts on the idea of meaningful choices, Matthias Worch made a great talk about how he applies meaningful choice to his works of game level design[xx], and in this talk he presented a concept that can help us better understand how to look the space of possibility of a game to understand if the intertwined set of choices a game is presenting to the players are promoting meaning and agency or not. He proposes that we look at the game as an environment, (but we can equate it with the space of possibility to better understand it) and by studying his view on it we can infer three distinct categories for the space of possibility, and with it we can try to see in what category the game we are analyzing is best fitting:
Too complex: If the amount and the kind of choices generates a space of possibility so complex that the player cannot see patterns of choice that can increase their chance of winning. In this case, the game feels random, as you don’t know if your choice is any better than any other.
Too simple: If the amount and the kind of choices generates a space of possibility so simple that the players can easily see what choices should be done to increase their chances of winning. In this case, the game feels solved and boring, as there is no thinking necessary, and nothing new to learn.
Balanced: If space of possibility is variable and complex in a way that you cannot ever actually develop an innate or dominant strategy for it, but where the player can distinguish patterns as they play, enabling the making of decisions and creating a learning curve as you play the game.
As Worch points out, even simple choices can make a meaningful game by the concept of prioritization choice, which he defines as “the complex interplay of systems that are easily understood individually, but that combine into situations that don’t have a consistent and obviously superior tactic.”.
So, to analyze the meaningful choices on a game we need to analyze both the individual groups of choices given to players, as well as how the myriad of choices contributes to creating the space of possibility when the game is played. Game designers should aim to create games that, for their target audience, will create enough feeling of choice to make the players feel empowered, giving them agency, without making it too complex or too simple. The key here is giving enough information so that the players can see patterns, but make it complex enough, and hide enough information so that the game does not become “solved” for the player.
For board game design this is even more important, as most board games are designed to be played many times over, and replay value has a huge connection with the concept of learning curve and the actual process of learning and improving on a game. The more a player plays a game, the better he becomes at identifying winning and losing conditions, good and bad choices, and more he learns the patterns of the game. A great game will be so well balanced that even new players can see patterns of actions that might increase the chance of winning, but even the best players in the world would still not have the game “solved”. Impossible? Certainly not, chess works like that, and Terra Mystica still has huge discussions on the forums, both are certainly not “solved” games at all. For sure, the fact that another human mind is playing against you is the key factor in enabling this, as a game against an AI will hardly reach this status, yet some great games created interesting systems to enable the game to last hundreds of hours of play before boring its players. (Mage Knight Board Game, PC-Game Civilization, XCOM both the PC-Game and the Board Game, are some examples.)
There are other ways to increase replay value, besides making the game learning curve longer by having many levels of patterns of choices that the player can learn to improve their chances of winning, yet this is still one of the best ways to promote meaningful choice, so in The Gamer Sage personal opinion, this is the first option that should always be tried.
And here we finally end this article. I tried to bring an overview of the concept of meaningful choice, how designers of different areas of expertise see it, and how we could use the most important aspects of the thoughts of all those different professionals to help us better learn and analyze the choices of the games we play or design.
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[i] James Portnow, Extra Credits YouTube Channel, The Feeling of Agency - What Makes Choice Meaningful?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q7ECX5FaX0, and How Much Agency Do Games Need? - Choices in Linear Games, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0RFoGvkQfs.
[ii] Jon Back’s, Creative Geek YouTube Channel, Meaningful Choice – Board Game Design Theory, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8cKteFy804
[iii] James Portnow, Extra Credits YouTube Channel, The Feeling of Agency - What Makes Choice Meaningful?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q7ECX5FaX0, and How Much Agency Do Games Need? - Choices in Linear Games, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0RFoGvkQfs.
[iv] Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play - Game Design Fundamentals, The MIT Press, Cambridge
[v] Dave Eng, EdD, Meaningful Choices, universityxp.com, https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/6/meaningful-choices
[vi] Chris Bateman, A Game Isn't a Series of Interesting Decisions, https://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2008/07/a-game-isnt-a-series-of-interesting-decisions.html
[vii] Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play - Game Design Fundamentals, The MIT Press, Cambridge
[viii] Jon Back’s, Creative Geek YouTube Channel, Meaningful Choice – Board Game Design Theory, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8cKteFy804
[ix] Dave Eng, EdD, Meaningful Choices, universityxp.com, https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/6/meaningful-choices
[x] James Portnow, Extra Credits YouTube Channel, The Feeling of Agency - What Makes Choice Meaningful?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q7ECX5FaX0, and How Much Agency Do Games Need? - Choices in Linear Games, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0RFoGvkQfs.
[xi] Brice Morrison, gamasutra.com, https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BriceMorrison/20131119/204733/Meaningful_Choice_in_Games_Practical_Guide__Case_Studies.php
[xii] James Portnow, Extra Credits YouTube Channel, The Illusion of Choice - How Games Balance Freedom and Scope, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45PdtGDGhac
[xiii] Brice Morrison, gamasutra.com, https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BriceMorrison/20131119/204733/Meaningful_Choice_in_Games_Practical_Guide__Case_Studies.php
[xiv] Dave Eng, EdD, Meaningful Choices, universityxp.com, https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/6/meaningful-choices
[xv] Daniel Doan, GameDev Thoughts: The Power Of Meaningful Choices In Game Design, medium.com, https://medium.com/@doandaniel/gamedev-thoughts-the-power-of-meaningful-choices-in-game-design-50dbdeb0348a
[xvi] Andrei van Roon, “Riot Meddler”, LoL Design Values: In-Depth with Meaningful Choices, https://euw.leagueoflegends.com/en/news/game-updates/features/lol-design-values-depth-meaningful-choices
[xvii] James Portnow, Extra Credits YouTube Channel, The Feeling of Agency - What Makes Choice Meaningful?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q7ECX5FaX0
[xviii] Jesse Schell, The art of game design: A Book of Lens, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers Inc.
[xix] Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play - Game Design Fundamentals, The MIT Press, Cambridge
[xx] Matthias Worch, Meaningful Choice in Game Level Design, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEF4GVNzkUw