Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Game Design: Encouraging Sub-Optimal Play


Something that has occurred to me lately is how to encourage players to really explore the space presented by a game. Typically, it seems, you get a very CCG-style of 'one path to rule them all' where all that information is essentially extraneous to the optimal strategy. If you're very lucky, then you get a rotating cast of strategies like Rock-Scissors-Paper. Which is much less interesting if you manage to extend that single throw over the course of ten minutes, let alone an hour.

The point of a wargame, I think, is to not determine victory before the forces are deployed in an attempt to strategically one-up your opponent. I feel like the point is to develop victory through the clever, in-game negotiation with your opponent. I've seen this accomplished in several ways, in wargames where you're allowed to choose your material, if not your board-space.

The first way is what I've seen called "progressive scoring," which in Warhammer 40,000 terms is something like scoring throughout the game instead of at the end. In part the Warhammer 40,000 application has relied on several things, not the least being randomized objectives. I'm not sure whether it would be successful if it weren't for the randomized objectives, because without the random elements players can simply apply backwards induction to the question of when and where to score their points as the game goes on. In prior editions as well, those scored on the simple metric of who managed to remove the most enemy points from the table, likewise scored in an ongoing, progressive fashion but the general strategy was determined in the list-building phase because the same units that scored also did the scoring, so that winning was a simple matter of target priority, which in turn defined list-building and hence pre-game strategy. Perhaps the random determination of objectives can be handled by ensuring that objective markers themselves are placed where they will be contested, or perhaps revalued depending on their position, like objectives in your own deployment zone being worth considerably less than objectives in your opponent's deployment zone.

Another way is through the clever application of player choice to the sequence of events, rather than to the exact relationship of elements to one another. Put another way, rather than aiming to simulate the passage of time, a turn sequence that can change or be changed affects every game mechanic downstream of it, and refocuses player priorities on manipulating that turn sequence rather than calculating optimal match-ups in a regular play-space. Such games include 7TVPulp Alley, and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. I'm reasonably sure that someone in the Games Workshop Design Studio introduced some other people in that office to 7TV, itself a generic version of the Doctor Who Miniatures Game produced by Crooked Dice, and rolled with it. Because 7TV is very much a Warhammer game, and it's fun as these things go. I prefer Pulp Alley, but we're all entitled to our preferences, no matter how churlish or ugly or in bad taste...

Essentially what we can do is either randomize goals so that players can't use backwards induction to find the optimal path to victory, or switch the focus of the game from taking risks in a regular framework to taking risks in a dynamic, changing framework. The graphic at the top of this article, while insightful, presumes a static and unchanging framework of elements through which a path can be established. Imagine where the players, such as they are in that analogy, can affect the "information" and "knowledge" of the other player, such that any "insight" and "wisdom" they may derive changes as they travel through each turn or node of the game.

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