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“On the horns of a dilemma”

(In the following I’ll be using quotes gleaned from online discussions, from players and a well-known designer. These are all personal observations, of course, and anecdotal evidence. We simply don’t have the “scientific” evidence about games to “prove” any particular point of view. You’ll have to examine your own experience to make an evaluation.)

A while ago I read a preview of the video game XCOM:Enemy Unknown, now released and not to be confused with its successor Declassified. I was struck by how often the author talked about “hard choices”, struck because this is what games (beyond family/party games) traditionally have involved, yet are rarely present in a great many contemporary video games, and many tabletop games. Traditionally, a game designer wanted to put the players of a game “on the horns of a dilemma”, trying to decide between two or more things the player wants to do when he can only do one.

Even in family games there were occasional difficult choices to be made although the players often weren’t bothered whether they made the correct choice or not. This may be one way of differentiating family/party games from more serious games. That is, adult players of family/party games rarely take the game, or themselves as players, seriously. Children often take them more seriously than the adults.

Diablo III is a poster boy for video games where there are no hard choices, where in the long run your choices don’t matter at all. It’s institutionalized in the game in such things as the selection and use of skills. You do not have to make decisions that matter when choosing which skills to use, because you can always change combinations. This is touted as providing greater variety, which it does, but once again it means that what the player decides *doesn’t really matter*. There are no consequences for poor choices, just a “do again” akin to guess-and-check (which used to be known as “trial and error”, but the meaning of the latter is changing). It is no long consequence-based gaming, it has become reward-based gaming.

In general, in Diablo III it doesn’t really matter what a player does, he’ll succeed in the end.

"I know if I invest X amount of time into D3 I will beat it with no learning curve and nothing really gained from the experience other than over hyped cinematics and the bragging rights to sell things to my peers on an auction house.

I know this for a fact. There is no skill set or learning curve required for D3 except point, click and equip the best weapon set for my class that I own. I can die millions of times and as long as I am willing to keep clicking, I will triumph eventually. D2 had challenges/elements throughout its design that made it more unwieldy but immensely more fun. All of those points were removed from the latest version of the game to accommodate a wider audience." (John Karnay)

World of Warcraft is much the same. Game designer Brenda Romero:

"I play World of Warcraft a fair bit, but I don't really worry too much, because I know if I kill myself the very worst thing that's going to happen is I'll have to run a zillion miles back to my body.

I am way more careful in Minecraft . . . when there's a fear of loss, your success means more to you."

This is not confined to video games. Another aspect of these changes was reflected in the comments on a blog post that "weeped for newbs", lamenting that even secret doors seem to be regarded as a "dirty GM trick" in 4th edition D&D.

4th edition is WoWified, it doesn't ask the players to think much, it's really hard to screw up and die. A comment on the post finally made me realize that the fundamental point of RPGs has changed between 1st and 4th edition. In 1st edition you wanted to overcome the thrill of fear. The referee's job was to scare the snot out of you, usually by threatening your character with death, sometimes by threatening to take or destroy your stuff, though his or her job definitely was NOT to actually kill you. 2nd edition was similar. 3rd edition became a contest to find rules that enabled you to construct a one-man army (OMA), and then the game was about you showing off the super-duper-ness of your one-man army (one person called it "fantasy Squad Leader"). Your OMA was too tough to be scared. Where in 1st edition most of those unearned advantages would not even be allowed, they had become the main reason for playing 3rd. In 4th edition it has gone further, essentially you're rewarded for participation.

In this respect many video and role-playing games are becoming pure entertainment, without any element of frustration or obstacle.

In traditional games the consequence of making the wrong choices, or sometimes simply being unlucky, was that you lost the game (or at least were more likely to lose). In video game “entertainments” you can’t lose; if you fail or die you simply come back and continue as before, whether this is built into the game as is often the case now (respawning) or whether you go back to your saved games. Nor can you lose in tabletop RPGs, if the referee chooses so.

I said in my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish that I thought video and tabletop games are converging, but sometimes I'm not so sure when I look at games like Farmville on one hand, and worse, the all-rewards-all-the-time games like Diablo III and many others, where anything that interferes with getting direct pleasure is regarded as a "fail".

Yet many Eurostyle board games lean toward removing the sting or frustration of failure by removing direct conflict or direct interaction from the game. In the extreme I call this a “contest”, where several people are attempting to achieve the same thing without significantly affecting one another and whoever achieves its first wins. Virtually any activity can be turned into a contest if it involves time or something else that’s measurable, such as who can get an arrow closest to the bull’s-eye, or who can type the most words in 5 minutes. Many Olympics style sports are actually contests rather than games. Some races are contests, for example most swimming races; others involve blocking an opponent which is an aspect of a game rather than a contest.

The heart of this point of view is that games (as opposed to puzzles) require a semblance of intelligent opposition that can affect other players, and in contests there is no by-rule way to affect other players. Yes, you can ALWAYS have a chance to affect another person psychologically, for example going out fast in a middle distance swimming race to try to spook your opponent; but the rules don't cover or facilitate this.

A game of hard decisions requires the player to use his brain, but that seems to be going out of fashion. For example, Clay Johnson talked about how his son plays video games:

"What I often observe though is that he 'cheats' to play through his games. By that I mean that he starts the game, and after a few rounds gets stuck. Instead of using his brain to try different strategies he simply looks up a guide on the net where there are countless free walkthrough guides for nearly every game out there.

To me, this seems like it turns a puzzle into a basic clerical task, but he thrives on it !? Can this response by the users be the basic reason for 'dumbing down' games?"

This reminds me of contemporary programming students - usually those who aren't interested in becoming professional programmers - who guess at solutions rather than reason them out. But instead of guessing or figuring it out, Johnson's son looks it up.

I like to say that at age 15 I "retired" from playing chess, because it had become too much like work. Chess is a "game" (extraordinarily difficult puzzle, really) where there's always a correct, best move, and that combined with the vast weight of the chess literature, put me off. Now "too much like work" has changed meaning. For a great many players, a game that requires *any* hard decisions is "too much like work."

With a lack of hard decisions, gameplay depth (which is largely about hard decisions) is also absent or in short supply in most contemporary games. In fact, when gamers say "depth" nowadays they often mean *variety*. Variety is replacing gameplay depth as a goal for game design.

It's important to most western gamers that games are "fair". But I think the definition of fair has changed for video gamers. Where it used to imply that you got what you deserved, that you had to *earn* something, now it means "fair" in the way my young niece used to use it. She'd say "that's not fair", but she meant, "that's not what I want, I'm not getting what I want". Now video game players expect a game to give them what they want, when they want it, period.

I'm not saying this is bad, I'm saying this is what it is, and game designers have to recognize it, even if they design for a niche that prefers old-fashioned, consequence-based gaming - the niche that likes XCOM: Enemy Unknown.


More examples

Here are some more examples of games that have been "dumbed down" or that are great games with choices involved.

First off, Mario games...the original mario games were hard. And they had multiple ways of defeating levels many times. The games were unforgiving in that you really only had 3 hits before you died if you didn't find any more powerups and many times even with two power ups you'd still die in one hit (falling off cliffs and what-not). In today's Mario games though you now start out with almost twice as much health and can double it at some points in the game. Each level is now a breeze with very little challenge in it compared to the older games where if you got to world 8 without whistles, you rocked.

Second, Zelda games. The original Zelda game was TOUGH. You had no idea where to go first and you could techinically try and beat the 8th dungeon before the first. The game in a sense was also tough because once Link was hurt, you lost the ability to shoot your sword. (lol, shooting swords) So once you were hurt, it made it even harder to fight back. The game was tough and don't even get me started on the second Zelda game (I can't even GET to the first boss let alone beat him).

War games, I believe anyways, will always be good games in the sense of giving players options. Any game that has a core genre or idea centered around strategy will be good.

DnD is a sad state of affairs. I only ever play 2nd ed for this very reason. I DM for my wife, my two brothers and my oldest brother's wife. It's fun to put them into embarassing situations and sometimes into VERY deadly ones only to have them succeed instead of die like I had planned (This is very fulfilling to me to create a challenge that brings them nigh unto death yet they survive).

Heck Pokemon still provides better choices than a lot of games. Do I pick a charmander, bulbasaur, or squirtle...ok so charmander's the only real good pick (jk). But the point is the choice you have at the beginning of the game (excluding trading) affects the rest of the game. Heck even picking which evolution of Eevee to use is a choice because you only get one of them.

Elder Scrolls are an example of games being dumbed down to gain more gamers. I remember in the days of Morrowind all the options available to players. The game mechanics weren't as good as the later games, but the actual gameplay IMO was better in that you had more choices, and these choices had a bigger impact in the way you played the game. If you chose to be a mage, you couldn't, by nature, become the leader of the Fighter's Guild. Oblivion on the other hand I was once the leader of the Mage's, Thieves, Fighter's guilds, AND the dark brotherhood. This was a normal occurance in Oblivion. In Morrowind you couldn't be the leader of all three guilds because, what brutish fighter is going to lead the theives guild? None. Not to mention after Morrowind I couldn't use my spears or ninja stars anymore. Spears I missed more than anything.

Pandemic is a great game that demonstrates the need to pick between many options, all of which are important and need to be done. This is actually an essential thing for most cooperative games, IMO. If you don't have players debating, EVERY TURN, what they need to do, then the coop game is most likely flawed.


I agree with your assessment of the evolution of board game design. However, in my opinion, the most prevelant reason for the change in games (just talking about board games) and, indeed, the birth of the Ameritrash genre, is that players want options on their turns. They dont want to be stuck making a play that they wouldnt normally make just because another player has already used that action for that round. Agricola is a great example. Players dont like feeling like they have just been cheated out of their optimal move. Some might argue that action limitations are essential to the game type (example: worker placement), but I argue that worker placement games (or other types) which either dont allow secondary options for the same action, or dont allow players to advance their effort just as effectively using a different action are broken games. The "tough" choices in a game should flow from having too many options, which is positively reinforcing, instead of restrictive, which is negatively degrading.
When "tough" choices result in meaningful actions no matter which choice is made are the choices really "tough"? Maybe not. But I play board games to have fun and exercise my brain. Not to come out at the end with a headache and feel like I just wasted 2 hrs.
Which brings up another point... Games are going toward more reward based systems over consequence based, because everything in the world is competing for our precious time. There are more things than ever to compete for our attention, hence, when a person sits down to devote 2 hrs to a board game or video game they want to feel rewarded for that time. And it is only going to get worse.
That is why I focus my designs on an entertaining theme, "fair" gameplay (meaning plenty of options and probably some catch-up mechanics), player interaction, and a reasonable play length.
But, if it makes you feel better, co-op games are becoming much more popular and those games are more consequence based puzzles than other types. And I agree with Kroz1776, make every option important and you have inherently created consequences.


What's funny about your Agricola reference is that there is a worker placement game of sorts that has so many good options that you don't care when someone takes your spot. This is La Havre.

Personally I don't think you need player interaction to create a good game that entails a lot of good choices. Agricola also mitigates this because they game almost forces you to do certain things to be able to win thus also lowering the amount of true choices you get. The freedom to choose whether you want to get animals at all should be a decision. Games should allow people to pick different strategies and go for them instead of being a race to see who can get the best identical farm of all time!

Blocking, tackling, paths

Games like Agricola, blocking games with few viable paths, have little to do with reality. Not being able to do something because someone chose to do it before you (worker placement) is a staple of a blocking game, but as a mechanic it has nothing to do with reality, no correspondence to something that happens in reality with any frequency (I'm sure someone can think of an example where it does, of course).

Gameplay depth is a consequence of offering players several plausible choices, some of which are actually viable (will contribute to long-term success), but where it is difficult but not impossible to figure out which choice is good this time, though it may be another next time. When the game almost forces you to act along a particular path, you have something much akin to a puzzle, not a game.

Someone mentioned Le Havre on BGG in connection with this post. In a blocking game, there cannot be many viable paths, or blocking is impossible because other players just take different, unblocked, paths - as appears to be what happens in LH.

In a more directly interactive game, a conflict game, where there is destruction and "stealing"/taking of assets - a "tackling" game - there can be more viable paths because the game doesn't depend on blocking, Which choice is best depends very much on what the other players do/have done. Actually, you may not have paths in a tackling game in the same sense that you have distinct paths (that often cannot accommodate more than one player) in many blocking games.

Reward-basis in a game and dumbing down are not the same thing, but are related.

Doom and Gloom

Games have gotten boring. But I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that publishers have gotten their wishes and greatly expanded their marketplace. The money is in the masses, and the masses are not "Gamers". They are consumers.

The hardcore game community is still alive and kicking, but they have more options than ever. And many of those options they can play for years, without the need of another game.

Look at games like League of Legends. It has something like 30 million monthly users. The game is deceptively simple, but face smashingly hard when you really get into it. Sure, many of those 30 million are sheep, but there is room for millions of wolves. It is a game where your every death actively makes the enemies stronger. The more you fail, the harder the game gets. Hell, just working with your 4 teammates can be an epic struggle.

You have games like Minecraft, Terraria, Eve, Magic the Gathering, any game with Permadeath, many of the sandbox MMO's, Demon Souls, any Roguelike game, etc.

The games of yore were hard, but there are more hard games today, simply because there are by far more games.

The easiest route to commercial victory would be to make games for the consumers. But, there are plenty of niche markets waiting for an excellent game to satisfy their tastes.

Great read

Hey there. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about the evolution of board gaming, and gaming in general. While I'm not quite the veteran you are, I've played my share of board games, MMOs, and video games.

I can vouch for the strange allure of button mashing and grinding my way to excellence. I played many many many many hours of Lord of the Rings online. What better do I have to do on a Saturday morning but kill 300 Wolves, 200 Trolls, and 160 weird blind things so I can incrementally increase my stats? I think what this grinding offers players is time to bond with their characters. You literally spend months of in-game time with these avatars. You fret over their appearance, their gear, and their stats.

A couple other things I think about regularly as I take my first steps into board game design are the terms "realism" and "replayability". Realism always makes me chuckle when I hear it. That game is so realistic. Really? You're moving little boxes around larger boxes in an abstraction of reality. What would I know about fighting in a war, so how can that wargame be realistic? Beyond the humor though, "realism" in a game I think means what you're talking about - difficulty and consequence. In the universe of a particular game, some events will be really shitty if they happen. Do you as a game designer pad the walls around decisions players make? Or do they have to feel the consequences?

Replayability irks me a bit more because it has come to mean customization and modularity/randomness. Many many games cater to our inability to find the depth of a game. I sometimes long for the iconic board game maps of Risk, A&A, or Twilight Struggle. Those maps don't change. Australia will always be Australia. The replayability of these games is not in adjusting to a new situation and novel strategies, but doing your best to execute in a (relatively) unchanging world. Cards and randomness will make each game different.

That's nothing like some games these days where designers want to make sure that every time is a new experience. That sort of design is interesting for a while, but I think the human mind gravitates towards those iconic, deeper decisions. That's what generates long-lasting fun and strategy. And I think there's a magic and intuition involved with developing games that fit that mold, but it basically comes down to not underestimating your audience by thinking they need superficial, consume-and-move-on fun to enjoy the game.

Good models versus "realistic"

No, games (at least, tabletop games) cannot be "realistic". But some games are at least models of some reality, while others are not. In a good model, what happens in the game, and what the player does, correspond to something that happens or could happen in the reality. Some mechanics do not, cannot, fit this mold (e.g. worker placement), often the very blocking mechanics that are popular in Eurostyle games.

I wonder if we can make a general hypothesis, that games with static starting positions are more likely to have deep gameplay than those that don't? Some classic games have static starting positions, on the other hand, Go, does not. Or take the Bobby Fischer chess variant, where the pieces in the back row are scrambled (and mirrored between both players). That makes for a lot of different starting positions, but is the game less deep for that? (Of course, chess is essentially a puzzle too complex for people to solve, not a game at all, really.)

Interesting read, although

Interesting read, although I'm not sure what the point is. Yes, I can see how some games have become easier, and the actual choices don't matter so much. It's a design choice.

I disagree with the stab you are giving some Eurostyle games, and I don't really see the connection with the above point. Yes, direct conflict is often not present in such games, but it doesn't mean there aren't any hard or meaningful choices to be made. Princes of Florence is a game that often has such criticism directed at it. However, I think it's a great game, and the interaction that is there, while very indirect, has a very direct impact on what you can and cannot do. This makes for some deliciously hard choices that very much influence the outcome of the game.

@GuruForge, the Ameritrash genre existed long before the Eurostyles games emerged. They certainly are not a response to Eurostyle games. If anything, it was the other way around. The Eurostyle games emerged in Germany in the 1980s, when designers looked for themes other than war (which was taboo in post WWII Germany), and a way to play a game with the whole family. I'm sure there's some interesting write-up to be found about this somewhere on the inter webs. Both genres simply scratch a different itch.

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