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Sources of Tension

"German" or "European"-style games have become popular in part because they present players with interesting and challenging decisions. As we try to create games that present our players with tough decisions, it would be useful to know some of the sources of tension that lie behind these decisions and give them meaning.

A preliminary clarification is that we use "tension" not solely in the sense of "excitement" but rather in the literal sense of "pulling" -- a source of tension is a factor that pulls you in multiple directions, and your decision as a player will identify which direction you will take.

As someone once said, even Candyland presents the player with decisions -- what hand to move your pawn with, what side of the draw pile to discard cards onto, etc -- it's just that these aren't terribly interesting decisions. This founders an important principle, that a decision, in and of itself, is not an inherently desirable entity. Rather, something must lie behind that decision; something must be motivating it. This page lists some of the more common sources. Note: these aren't mutually exclusive; a game, or even a mechanic, may feature more than one of these.

  • Press your luck A course of action having a random factor has some non-zero probability of failure, yet continuing to take the action brings a desirable reward. The player must decide whether to "quit while he's ahead", or continue to take the action and try to increase his reward. Examples of games that have this sort of tension include Can't Stop, Diamant, and of course, the TV game show of the same name.
  • "High Noon" Two or more players have the same desirable action available, and the first one to take it incurs some sort of risk or penalty such that players don't want to be the first to take the action. An example is the set collection aspect of Risk -- the first player to turn in a set of cards gets extra armies (a good thing), but this opens the door for other players to receive even more armies when they turn in sets; therefore, it's desirable to not be the first to turn in a set. The building aspect of Carcassonne is also an example of this; if you have claimed a city, you want to make it as big as possible before completing it so as to max out your points, yet failing to complete it leaves the door open that another player could weasel his way into your city scoring. (this feels a bit like "press your luck" as well, actually...)
  • I think that he thinks that I think that he thinks.... The outcome of a decision you will make will be influenced by a simultaneous decision that another player or players will make. Hence, you try to anticipate what the other player(s) will do, but because you know that they are trying to do the same thing, you also try to calculate what the other player(s) think that you are going to do. The best example of this is the contest between Vizzini and the Dread Pirate Roberts in "The Princess Bride". In game terms, Rock Paper Scissors is the distilled essence of the mechanic, and any game with a simultaneous combat resolution mechanic, such as Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation and A Game of Thrones, will have this element. Really, any game with simultaneous decisions would have this.
  • Not enough resources This is the classic "German game" source of tension: you don't have enough resources to do everything that you want to. This isn't restricted to quantity of resources, but may also pertain to type as well; in a game with 4 resource types, it may only be possible to acquire two or three types at a time, restricting your options. Examples of this abound, and include ((Puerto Rico)), ((Settlers of Catan)), and even Monopoly.
  • Not enough time This is a close relative of "not enough resources", if one says that time is a resource. The idea here is that the number of turn actions you have available is limited, and so again, you can't do everything you want to. Examples of this include ((Acquire|Acquire's)) restriction of only 3 stock purchases per turn, Wallenstein's limit of one action per territory per turn, and Tikal's limit of 10 action points per turn.
  • Petty diplomacy This is probably more of a play style than a source of tension, but many games that include combat force a player to answer the question, "whom shall I attack?" Often, the answer is "the person that just attacked me, to pay him back for attacking me". Unfortunately, this isn't often a route to winning the game, however, it's such a visceral human reaction to fire back at someone who has just attacked us that at the very least, it can lead to a challenging decision -- get revenge, or pursue victory?
  • Short-term vs. long-term -- you have a choice of mutually exclusive actions such that one is certain (or very likely) to improve your short-term position or score, while another may lead to greater long-term success, but with a possibility of failure. This is similar to "press your luck", but involves two or more courses of action. For example, in RoboRally, when you land on a double-wrench space, you can either repair 2 points of damage (short-term benefit) or take an option card (long-term benefit, but you may get a relatively worthless card, and you have to manage with your current level of damage).
  • Set collecting Trying to complete a set of things together before the end of a round, the end of the game, before a scoring opportunity, before an opponent does, or simply as soon as possible. An incomplete set is worthless, or at least much less useful than a complete set. Many examples: Settlers, Traumfabrik, etc.
  • All-or-nothing When you fulfill a certain condition before a certain point of time in the game you score a number of points (or gain some other beneficial thing). If you fail to fulfill the condition you lose that many points (or lose some kind of resource). This can lead to "press your luck"-esque tension; do you go for the big score and incur the big risk, or pursue a more modest reward but assume less risk of failure? Examples: Ticket to Ride.
  • Majority Having the most of something (compared to other players) gives you some kind of benefit. A second place is worthless, or is much less useful than the majority. The tension here comes from the question if, and how hard your opponents are willing to fight for the majority. How much should you invest to try to dissuade your opponents from fighting? In short, uncertainty through player interaction. Again, many examples: Union Pacific, Acquire, etc.
  • Build or attack? Again, you have a choice of mutually exclusive actions, where one may directly improve your own position or score, and another will hamper or worsen another player's position or score. A simple example of this is Mille Bornes, where you can either play a mileage card to get closer to your goal, or play an accident/out of gas/etc. card on another player to slow them down. In multiplayer games (Drakon is a good example), you can often manipulate this to force another player to "attack" someone who is about to win while you move yourself closer to winning.


this was an excellent analysis!

Great article. Succinct. It was helpful to consider which sources of tension I have in my game. Do you think these can compound? For example, if I have limited resources, and I can choose to build or attack, is the tension greater than the sum of its parts? Or will one decision simply override the other?

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gamejournal | by Dr. Radut