Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Choice Timeframes

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Original post

Reading old blog entries some of my attitudes have changed since I started writing and others remain. I’m still partial to the “Games are a series of interesting choices” school of game design. Today I wanted to talk about one way in which that leads me to look at games, both in terms of designing and playing them.

One way in which I understand games is in how many timeframes I’m considering when I make a choice.

If I’m playing Mr. Game! I’m really only thinking about right now. What move will my friends find amusing or interesting this turn? The way we play it the game is so chaotic any attempt to plan for next turn is utterly pointless, the rules will be too different.

If I’m playing Cube Quest I’ll be thinking about three times. Can I flick my cube to knock an opponent’s piece on the table this turn? What options will my opponent have if this goes well or badly for their next turn? Am I contributing to a long term position that will mean I win in the endgame if neither of us manages a kill shot on the king while the board is still busy?

If I’m playing Race for the Galaxy I will be thinking about at least five. Can I choose an action that lets me play something I want to this turn? Might I play something desirable by the end of this turn? Can I leave myself in a position to have a meaningfully useful turn next turn? Are the cards I have to discard to make this happen ones I’d rather keep to play in the medium turn (say sometime in the next 3ish turns)? Does this play contribute to my end game scoring? Depending on the decision and situation there might be more time frames I could usefully think in, but at around five I’m starting to run up against my cognitive limits.

If I’m playing Gloomhaven I’ll do slightly more. On a tactical level I might still be thinking in about as many times: Does this work for my next turn? What might my partner do in their next turn that will compliment/disrupt it? What might the monsters do in their turn that will disrupt it? If it works do the cards and positions I’m left with work for next turn? Do the cards I expend leave me with useful pairs until I’ve played out my hand over the next few turns or am I risking resting early to avoid a dead turn? However I find it easier to throw in an extra couple and also be considering “Is it worth a tactically suboptimal move to grab some xp for levelling up a scenario earlier?” “Is it worth a tactically suboptimal move to make progress on an objective that has to be completed over several scenarios?”

Thinking about games in this way leads me to some observations:

More levels isn’t necessarily better. I enjoy all of the games mentioned above in different contexts. It is something that defines the sort of game being played, like genre or weight, rather than a variable to be maximised.

It doesn’t matter much how far apart the levels are. In Chess the levels might literally be one move apart and I’m just describing how many turns ahead I can think (Both a a function of my limits and the extent to which the game rewards forward thinking). In a legacy game one level I’m thinking of might not matter until several months later. The distinction doesn’t matter much – thinking in several time frames does similar things to my experience of the game.

It matters a lot how finely balanced the options are. I find it interesting to wrestle with a decision of short term pain for long term gain only if they feel close enough for it to be a judgement call. The closer the choice, the more interesting the decision.

Different players will operate effectively (and have preferences for) different numbers of layers. In playtesting a player with a preference for a lower number of layers will often simply ignore the longest term one.

From a designers point of view these observations have implications:

Knowing explicitly what you want your playesr to be thinking about and making those decisions close and tense as often as possible is worthwhile.
Highlighting, indirectly, what a game expects will help it to attract the players who will most enjoy it.
A game that rewards thinking in an extra frame but is robust enough to still play well if the players aren’t can serve a larger variety of groups.
The number of frames a player can operate in are influenced by how the game presents them. Classic games like Chess and Go do well because it’s easy to improve one frame at a time and makes the distinction obvious to its players. Legacy games also do well because the deliniation of short vs long term is so critical to their function. Both have features that can be adopted in other genres

This isn’t the only way to think about games. It’s highly reductive and represents just one lens to consider a design through – but I think it’s an interesting one, both as a designer and a player.
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