The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Hard Decisions

Stefan Alexander

March , 2005

I like hard games. Some might find it disconcerting to start in an ambiguous way, but the following article is full of ambiguities, so you should get used to it now. I will admit that "hard" is such a poor word to describe games, because it has so many different meanings. Are there a lot of rules? Are the rules simple, but written poorly, making them difficult to understand? Does the game offer so many options that players spend a lot of time making a decision? Is the game so chaotic that predicting the possible outcomes of your actions is difficult? Are the pieces solidly constructed, and difficult to bend?

All of these things can make a game hard, but will probably detract from the fun (for most people, myself included)—except for the solidly constructed pieces, of course (don't get me started raving about that BuyWord box). For the purposes of this discussion, I propose to simply define "hard games" as games having hard decisions; those decisions where you're in gut-wrenching pain—you feel as if the answer is right in front of you, and that this decision will determine the fate of the game, but you can't decide what to do. For a better explanation than I can give about why a game needs hard decisions, read Jonathan Degann's article Game Theory 101 - Part III.

First, four characteristics of hard decisions:

1. Hard decisions are different from hard tasks. 

Evaluating many options in a turn to determine the optimal one is not really a hard decision. It is a hard task, composed of many little decisions that are actually quite easy. For example, take the recently released Dos Rios—a new medium-weight strategy game with a really neat river mechanic and great production values. In Dos Rios, players have 6 actions points to spend moving their pieces on the board, and kicking other player's pieces off the board. At the end of each turn, certain spaces produce (players get money or "dams" if they have a piece on those spaces). Players have dozens of ways to move their pieces, trying to make the most for themselves, and the least for other players. Players can also dam the river, changing where it flows, and each of those possibilities requires an entirely new analysis of the dozens of ways to move their pieces. This results in a lot of downtime, because players have a hard task each turn. Moving pieces and figuring out who will score is not difficult—but when this task is performed many times to determine the optimal placement, it becomes time consuming. Each turn becomes a hard task, made up of many small, simple decisions.

2. Hard decisions have few outcomes, but many considerations.

There are relatively few choices in the best hard decisions. However, in considering which outcome to choose, there are many factors to consider. In a coin toss, someone flips a coin, and you call "heads" or "tails" while it is still in the air. Not a hard decision, and one that can be made quickly. However, if your opponent is allowed to secretly place the coin with either side up and you are required to guess their choice, you could spend hours analyzing the decision even though the possible outcomes are the same. Since most people choose "heads", they might choose "tails" instead to throw you off. But do they know this fact? Do they think you know this fact? Second-guessing can go on and on... You can try to read their expression and ask them questions to see if they're bluffing. You can draw on past decisions this person has made, or their personality (do they take chances, or play it safe?). This is a very hard decision, and probably the reason that coins are tossed at the beginning of football games instead of selected and guessed.

3. Hard decisions are not solvable, and not impossible. 

If figuring out the outcome of your decision is impossible, or too difficult, the decision becomes relatively simple. For example, to predict the result of a die roll, one would simply calculate the odds. No one tries to figure out the shape of the die, looks for impact marks on its surface, or considers the size of the roller's hands. On the other hand, if there's enough information to find an optimal solution, and not too many possibilities, then that's also pretty simple (although it can be a lot of work). The hard part is when there's enough information to make you feel you should know the answer, but not enough such that you can actually find it.

4. Hard decisions are made up.

Now it's time to come clean; there are no true hard decisions. Most of the ones I list below can simply be "optimized" by a computer (or computer-like players—you know who you are!), predicting the probabilities, and probably do just as well (if not better) than human players. But it's the way we play these games that makes them hard. Is Chess a hard game? Yes and no. Since it can be theoretically solved by a computer, winning becomes an exercise in running through all the possible options. Not a hard decision, but definitely a hard task. However, people don't play this way. They develop long-term strategies, guess other's strategies, bluff, set traps, etc. Trying to determine if someone is playing into your trap because they haven't seen it, or because they have seen it and they have plans of their own, is a beautifully hard decision.

These are what I call the four main hard decisions:

Hard Decision #1: Press Your Luck (or, "Just one more… DAMN!") This mechanic is incorporated into many games—either subtly, or explicitly. Players continually take an action (based on some uncertainty), the outcome of which is progression towards the goal (money, points, etc.), or possibly further from the goal. Players choose when to stop, so they can potentially progress quite far, but the higher they go, the greater the possible loss. This mechanic is quite explicit in games like Can't Stop and Pig, but also quite subtle (and long-term) in many other games, such as Ticket to Ride. In Ticket to Ride, players can choose to draw new destination tickets at any time. If the destinations listed on the tickets can be connected by the end of the game, more points can be scored. Depending on your position, these new tickets might be partially completed, so you can get a big bonus just by connecting 1 or 2 more routes (a simple task). But there is a penalty for unfinished routes, so if a player keeps drawing tickets, he won't be able to finish them all before the end of the game, thereby losing points. The best move in press-your-luck situations is more than just playing the odds. Ideally, there is a point where one should stop (based on probability) to maximize one's profit. But most players will play beyond this point if someone else is clearly in the lead. This is because most players play to win, and not to maximize their score.

If a game of Ticket to Ride is nearing the end and all players think they have an equal chance of winning, it would usually be unwise to draw new tickets. Tickets drawn at the end of the game have a high chance of not being finished, so there's a high chance of losing points. However, if one player was in the lead by a significant amount (or at least it appeared that way), the situation would change. Ticket to Ride ticket To help with this example, let's over-simplify things and give ourselves a 10% chance of winning, since one player is significantly ahead. By drawing tickets at the end of the game, there is only a 20% chance of us finishing them—poor odds in a normal situation. But, if we do complete the tickets, we'll win the game. By taking new tickets we have increased our chance of winning from 10% to 20%. In an actual game predicting the odds is tricky, and deciding if you want a solid second-place or if you would rather have a greater chance of first (but probably end up last) is even trickier. But what really makes this type of decision hard is that other players are wondering the same thing. The leader might realize everyone will take a big risk to get ahead—so should he play it safe, or take a small risk himself to keep the lead? The second-place player might want to take a big risk to get the lead, but is also hoping that the leader will take a risk and lose, so maybe he should just stay put? And what about the other three players who are each taking a huge chance? One of them might actually make it... Besides, how sure is each player of his relative position? Or that the person who seems to be in last isn't actually the leader? These are the kind of hard decisions that press-your-luck games offer.

Hard Decision #2: Relative Positions of Players (or, "Hit Jim! He's in the lead!") Many games offer a decision which will change players' standings relative to each other. Trading is one example of this (Bohnanza, Settlers of Catan). Bidding games where other players get some (or all) of your bid also require you to keep track of player's standings (Modern Art). How much you pay depends not only on what you're getting, but also who is getting the money, and what position they are in. Greg Aleknevicus' article Basic Strategy 1.0 has an excellent explanation of how to excel in these types of games. 

Many German-style games offer situations where you can't help yourself without helping others, or hurt others without also hurting yourself. El Grande is a perfect example of this. For example, a player might perform an action that earns him 5 points, and earns another player 1 point. His other option is an action that earns him 10 points, but earns another player 15 points. The first option sounds much better—if all scores are equal. But if the other player getting the points is in last place (with little chance of taking the lead), then the second option is a much better decision.

The manipulation of player standings can be even more explicit. In Princes of the Renaissance, players buy "shares" in cities. The value of the shares depends on the rank of the city, which changes with the many wars fought throughout the game. By manipulating the wars, players change the values of the shares. Since players often have shares in several cities, much of the game involves knowing which cities to increase, and which to decrease (of course, actually accomplishing that is another problem entirely).

Trying to figure out who's ahead, who's behind, and how to rearrange that order such that you're in first place is another beautifully hard decision.

Hard Decision #3: Bidding (or, "I'll see your Modern Art, and raise you a Ra") There are so many different types of bidding, each of which offers different dynamics and different decisions. Almost every auction game offers a different bidding system which completely changes the flavour of a game. High Society bid cards On top of all the different auction styles (blind auctions, open auctions, circular auctions, etc.) there is bidding where you don't get to take back your bid if you lose (such as Taj Mahal), where you take back some of it (For Sale), or all of it (Modern Art). High Society does not allow you to make change for your bids, creating very hard decisions from this simple idea. The common component in all of these is to get maximum value with minimum cost, while your opponents receive the opposite. You need to estimate how much your opponents are willing to pay, and make sure they don't know that about you. Trying to evaluate the relative worth of something to you and other players, while hiding your actual desires from other players makes this one of the hardest decisions for players. Bidding is a simple mechanic for designers to incorporate into a game, it helps balance the game, and it is easy to understand. Add these factors to the built-in hard decisions it offers, and it becomes apparent why so many games use a bidding mechanic.

Hard Decision #4: Guessing and Bluffing (or, "I'll raise you $20. A flush beats a full house, right?") In every game, there is hidden information. Sometimes it's explicit; the cards a player is holding, or the number of victory points he has (Euphrat & Tigris). Even in absolute information games such as Chess, each player has a plan which is unknown to the other players. Any reasonable guess should be based on some probability and common sense, but it's often possible to get even more information by examining other player's actions.

Two main types of actions are important; in-game actions, and out-of-game actions. In Poker, the way you increase your bid can reveal a lot about your cards—this would be an in-game action. But the way you hold your cards, the changing color of your face and the expression in your eyes would be out-of-game actions.

Guessing another opponent's information or plan is useful, and hiding that information from others is also a good idea. But it's this tendency to guess that gives us guessing's evil twin: bluffing. By carefully controlling their in-game and out-of-game actions, players can make opponents believe certain things about their hidden information. Using this to manipulate other players is even more satisfying than guessing their plans. Figuring out if someone's scratching their nose because they're nervous, trying to make you think they're nervous, or it's just itchy, can be a painfully hard decision.

There are many other hard decisions, however, they can mostly be lumped into other categories. For example, highly strategic games require you to develop a long-term plan fairly early in the game, which can be a hard decision. I won't re-tread the ground Greg Aleknevicus covered in his article Basic Strategy 2.0, however most of the decisions involved in long-term planning are covered in the four main hard decisions. For example, sacrificing some points now to make more later is really press-your-luck. Knowing who your should plan to attack, and who you can leave alone is a "relative positions of players" decision, and predicting what strategies your opponents will take is a guessing decision.

There is also some overlap between these decisions. You have to guess when you're bidding, and you should evaluate the relative position of players in press-your-luck situations. Some games manage to simultaneously combine several of these hard decisions into a single move.

Hard decisions are not the only thing that makes a game fun, but when thinking about the best games I've played, and the ones I always come back to, I'm left thinking about the hard decisions. They all have something in common—they involve other people. In fact, we could summarize all four of the main hard decisions by simply saying "know your opponent". The hardest parts of games are not in playing against the game system itself, but when the system is there to simply facilitate the interaction with other people.

- Stefan Alexander

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