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Choices should benefit multiple strategies

[Cross-posted from my blog]

Like many people, I enjoy Ticket to Ride – but the card-drafting mechanic has always fallen flat for me. Every turn, you may either draft two cards or play a set of matching cards to claim a route. While claiming a route scores points and advances your progress toward your secret objectives, drafting cards just feels like the chore you do in between the exciting route-claiming turns.

Choices that feel interesting and rewarding are crucial for fun, engaging games. The main reason card drafting in Ticket to Ride feels flat to me is that each card makes only incremental progress toward a single goal – to get enough cards of that color to claim a route. It is necessary, but not exciting. To make choices more interesting and rewarding, each choice should benefit two different parts of the player’s strategy.

Catan is a great example of this heuristic in action. Most choices in Catan provide two distinct benefits. Players can build settlements and cities to increase resource production while also gaining victory points. They can build roads to expand to new locations while competing for the Longest Road. They can play a knight to move the Robber while competing for the Largest Army. Even the choice of where to place the Robber lets them block resource production for their rivals while acquiring a resource for themselves through theft.

Choices that advance multiple goals are harder to compare than those that advance one. If you are deciding between two options that each advance a single goal, you can default to whichever goal is more important. It is more challenging to weigh multiple goals, especially when they overlap. This makes the choice more interesting, but can be a double-edged sword if taken to the extreme – when it is too hard to compare choices, analysis paralysis can set in. Beware of adding too many reasons to make a choice.

This heuristic also makes choices feel more rewarding. Players like solving multiple problems with a single action – it makes them feel clever and efficient. Having a second justification for a choice also softens the blow when a player’s original strategy collapses. For instance, in Imperial Settlers if you build a red building that converts food to points early on but fail to construct an engine for food production, you can still benefit from anything that rewards you for having red buildings. In this way, choices that support multiple strategies help players to explore other approaches to playing the game, even if they didn’t originally intend to pursue those strategies.

Choices with multiple benefits are especially common in card-based strategy games, where cards often have some combination of effect, value, and type. For example, in Keyforge Creatures may have one or more subtypes, which interact with the effects of other cards. They also have a combat value and an effect. Whenever you play a Creature in Keyforge, you gain an attacker, a resource harvester, subtypes that may strengthen other cards, and possibly even a unique ability. Even if you only played the card for one of these reasons, you still receive the other benefits and may discover uses for them later.

A common and useful pattern when applying this heuristic is for each choice to give the player one short-term benefit and one long-term benefit. A problem with long-term strategies is that the payoff is deferred until later. If it does pay off it feels great, but if something goes wrong it feels terrible. By bundling immediate and delayed gratification together, player experiences are more consistently positive and it hurts less when they have to abandon their bigger plans.

My favorite example of a choice that benefits two different strategies is found in Alchemists, a game that combines the genres of inductive reasoning and worker placement. There are three ways to test out a potion to find out what it does – you can drink it yourself, feed it to a student, or sell it to an adventurer. Testing it on yourself or a student gives more precise information, but selling it to an adventurer has the added benefit of earning you money. I have always found that selling the potion feels much more exciting than testing it.

Be aware of how many purposes your choices are serving. Tracking down the ones that provide only a single benefit and enhancing them is an easy way to make any game feel richer and more satisfying to play.

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blog | by Dr. Radut